Alcohol Poisoning


Alcohol Poisoning: Prevention and Treatment

Alcohol abuse and addiction cost the US economy billions of dollars per year in lost productivity, criminal justice system costs, and healthcare-related expenses. Although alcohol consumption is a socially acceptable practice and is safe in moderation, excessive drinking can lead to poisoning and death.

At its core, the body treats alcohol as a toxin. As soon as a person starts to drink, the body attempts to process the alcohol and quickly eliminate it. If someone drinks in excess, the body cannot cleanse itself of the toxin fast enough, and an individual can die from the effects of acute alcohol poisoning. Who is most at-risk of alcohol-related poisoning deaths and how is alcohol poisoning treated? The following article will explain the effects of alcohol poisoning and effective treatment methods.

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning happens when someone consumes a substantial amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. People who struggle with alcohol dependence, and participate in binge drinking episodes are the most at-risk for alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol is a hypnotic-sedative and a depressant. Even small amounts of alcohol depress and impair significant bodily functions. When someone drinks, the liver secretes enzymes to help break down the alcohol. Typically, it takes the liver about 90 minutes to fully process and break down one ounce of pure alcohol. Beyond this level of consumption, serious, harmful effects can occur.

What are the symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

  • Stupor
  • Unconsciousness
  • Low body temperature
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed respiration
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Blue tinge to the skin

Is alcohol poisoning dangerous?

Yes, alcohol poisoning is a deadly, dangerous condition. Six people per day in the US die from alcohol poisoning. If you suspect alcohol poisoning in a friend or loved one, do not hesitate to call the police.

Who is most at-risk for alcohol poisoning?

People who binge drink are the most at-risk for alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks in two hours for a man, and four or more drinks in two hours for women. Social settings, holidays, and sporting events are common places where binge drinking and subsequent alcohol poisonings occur.

People between the ages of 18 and 34 and young men are the most at-risk for binge drinking episodes. Anytime a person consumes more alcohol than their body can process, they are at risk of poisoning themselves. The actual amount of alcohol needed to cause poisoning effects will vary significantly for each person. Vulnerable persons are most at-risk of experiencing alcohol poisoning in places where drinking is a significant part of the social scene.

Does alcohol poisoning happen more frequently with hard liquor, or beer or wine?

The purer the alcohol content, the more at-risk a person is for poisoning if they drink to excess. Alcohol is absorbed much more quickly into the body than food. Only one to two units of alcohol can have a noticeable effect on someone. With harder drinks, those effects happen more quickly than with beer or wine. One unit of alcohol is equivalent to:

  • A half pint of lower-strength beer, lager, or cider (ABV 3.6%)
  • A single shot of hard liquor (25 ml, ABV 40%)

Consuming 10 to 12 units of alcohol in one sitting puts someone at high-risk of alcohol poisoning.

What happens to someone who has alcohol poisoning?

After consuming up to 10 to 12 units of alcohol in a single sitting, coordination becomes extremely impaired. People who reach this level of drunkenness are at risk of falling, hitting their head, or otherwise injuring themselves. Staggering, slurred speech, and issues with balance, coordination, and sight occur.

As a person’s BAC levels reach toxic levels, more severe symptoms begin to manifest. Dehydration and digestive upset can happen. After 12 units are consumed, automatic bodily functions are suppressed and impaired, including respiratory rate, heart rate, and the gag reflex. It’s possible for a person at this stage to choke on their own vomit and asphyxiate. People at this stage of alcohol consumption can lose consciousness and die.

How is someone with alcohol poisoning treated, and where are they treated?

Once someone reaches this level of alcohol consumption, it’s critical that they receive prompt medical attention. They will need to be taken to a hospital. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call 911.

While waiting for an ambulance, do not allow the person to fall asleep. Try to keep them awake and sitting up. If they can drink, it’s important that they drink water to stay hydrated and help their body cleanse itself of the alcohol.

If you find them unconscious, roll them onto their side and make sure they are breathing. Do not leave them unconscious on their back because they can asphyxiate. Keep the individual warm, and monitor their condition as you wait for the ambulance.

Alcohol continues to increase in the bloodstream for up to 40  minutes after the last drink. If you are concerned that someone has had too much to drink, it’s essential to monitor them for more severe signs of alcohol poisoning for at least 40 minutes after they’ve had their final drink. Do not leave them alone or allow them to “sleep it off.” Home remedies such as cold showers, drinking coffee, or drinking more alcohol will not help someone who has reached this level of poisoning. These things can make alcohol poisoning worse.

In the hospital, individuals with alcohol poisoning are carefully monitored for several hours after the alcohol has left their system. They may need to be intubated if they are unconscious. Poisoning victims may also need IV fluids to replenish electrolyte, vitamin, and blood sugar levels. A catheter may also need to be inserted. For people with alcohol abuse and addiction symptoms, they will need to participate in an inpatient treatment center for alcohol abuse.  Detoxing in a safe, medical environment can help someone avoid binge drinking behaviors in the future.

Alcohol poisoning is a serious, dangerous condition. It is vital that a person suspected of having alcohol poisoning receives swift medical attention. Never leave a vulnerable person alone, and always monitor them while you wait for an ambulance. To prevent alcohol poisoning, never consume excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Moderation is key for enjoying social events and avoiding the risk of alcohol poisoning, injury, and death.