There are many severe consequences from consuming alcohol, but alcohol poisoning is one of the worst. Anyone suffering from alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical attention, and without it the risk of death is real. That is why it’s imperative for everyone to know how to avoid alcohol poisoning themselves, and how to spot the signs of an emergency in others. This guide provides all the information you need to know to keep yourself and others safe.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

All alcohol is intoxicating, but in very large quantities it can become poisonous. Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone drinks a very large amount of alcohol in a very short amount of time. This type of drinking leads to a highly elevated blood alcohol level, which essentially compounds all the ill-effects of drinking to the point that they become dangerous.

Alcohol poisoning can affect anyone regardless of their age, size, or drinking tolerance. At a certain level alcohol become poisonous to all people, and for some alcohol poisoning can occur after consuming relatively little. Plus, a person’s blood alcohol level can continue to rise even after they stop drinking. For all these reasons, it’s imperative for drinkers to be vigilant about their own consumption and the well-being of those around them.

To put this into perspective and to dispel some of the myths about who is most at risk, consider some eye-opening stats from the Center’s for Disease Control about alcohol poisoning in America:

  • Six people a day die from alcohol poisoning.
  • Deaths are most common in middle-age men.
  • Alcoholism is identified as a factor in 30% of the deaths by alcohol poisoning.
  • 38 million Americans report binge drinking at least four times a month. Binge drinking can quickly raise the blood alcohol level to a point when poisoning becomes possible.

When Does Alcohol Poisoning Occur?

The answer is different for every person. One of the most important things to remember about alcohol poisoning is that it can happen to anyone and it can happen quite unexpectedly. Some people who end up with alcohol poisoning have consumed larger quantities on previous occasions, but due to various emotional and environmental factors they suffer an adverse reaction despite drinking less.

There is no exact threshold when inebriation becomes alcohol poisoning. Rather, it’s typically identified as a blood alcohol level that is dangerously high. That level is calculated based on how much a person weighs and what they are drinking.

One drink is equivalent to about 14 grams of grain alcohol, which breaks down differently depending on the beverage:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of hard liquor

The weight of the drinker is also important. Generally, the more someone weighs the more they can consume, but the levels are a lot less than many people expect. For instance, it takes about 3 drinks for a 120-pound person to exceed the legal blood alcohol level of .08. But for a 160-pound person it takes just 4 drinks, and for a 200 pound person it’s only 5. The point is that drinking becomes dangerous for most people after consuming relatively little.

Drinking begins to severely affect a person’s coordination and cognition once they exceed a blood alcohol level of .10. Once they get past past the .12 level the negative effects are compounded further, and alcohol poisoning becomes possible. However, there is no exact level of consumption or precise blood alcohol level that signals alcohol poisoning. Rather, it is typically identified based on symptoms and side effects.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Since alcohol poisoning is a consequence of extreme drunkenness, people who are suffering from alcohol poisoning are often unable to recognize the condition in themselves or seek out help. That is why it’s imperative for anyone who drinks with any frequency to know what symptoms to look for in others. Alcohol poisoning can manifest itself in many way, but these are the most common signs:

  • Confusion and stupor
  • Abnormal breathing – either very fast or very slow
  • Hypothermia with a direct drop in body temperature
  • Pale skin that may take on a bluish tone
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Seizures

These are the earliest signs of alcohol poisoning. If left untreated they can become more severe:

  • Breathing stops completely
  • A heart attack occurs
  • Vomit causes chocking
  • Body temperature drops extremely low
  • Dehydration causes brain damage
  • Coma sets in

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Anyone suffering from alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical attention. They are a danger to themselves and others, and without direct medical intervention the damage to the person’s health is likely to be worse. Before diving into the proper treatment, it’s important to debunk some myths about how to help someone who is too drunk:

  • Sleep it Off – Blood alcohol level can continue to rise in someone’s sleep, but since they’re unconscious their condition is impossible to monitor.
  • Drink Coffee – Caffeine does nothing to counteract the effects of alcohol and may actually exacerbate the effects of alcohol poisoning.
  • Take a Cold Shower – Again, this does nothing to lower blood alcohol level, and the sudden change in temperature may actually induce shock.
  • Walk it Off – Exercise and activity do not make the body filter alcohol out of the blood stream any faster.

The takeaway is that there is no home remedy for alcohol poisoning. As soon as the signs or symptoms are observed an ambulance should be called immediately. Engaging the authorities is always a big decision, but in this instance it’s better to error on the side of caution. Take these actions while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

  • Keep the person with alcohol poisoning awake.
  • Keep them sitting up rather than lying down. If they do become horizontal, move their head to the side to prevent chocking on vomit.
  • Encourage the person to drink water but do not force them to consume as much as possible.
  • Never leave the person unattended.
  • Get prepared to tell the emergency responders how much the person drank and any other medical information it may be important to know.
  • Get the person with alcohol poisoning ready to go into the ambulance by gathering up their bag or coat.

After someone is admitted to the hospital it’s up to the doctors to decide what medical intervention to pursue. These are the most common treatments:

  • Having a tube inserted down the windpipe to aid with breathing.
  • Inserting an intravenous drip to provide nourishment and hydration.
  • Inserting a urinary catheter if incontinence becomes an issue.
  • Pumping the stomach to remove excess alcohol from the body.
  • Performing dialysis to accelerate how quickly the kidneys remove toxins from the system.

Preventing Alcohol Poisoning

Most people recover from alcohol poisoning, but there are physical, mental, social, and potentially legal consequences that are harder to recover from. That’s why it’s so important for people to prevent themselves and others from drinking dangerously. Here are some tips:

  • Drink in moderation – A safe level of alcohol consumption is considered one drink a day for women of all ages and men over 65, or two drinks a day for men younger than 65. Any amount more than that is potentially dangerous, which is why anyone who chooses to drink must drink slowly and moderately.
  • Always Eat – It’s a myth that having something in your stomach helps to soak up alcohol. However, drinking on an empty stomach tends to accelerate drunkenness and amplify the ill effects of alcohol poisoning.
  • Talk to Teens – Teens are at high risk of alcohol poisoning because they are unfamiliar with alcohol and subject to peer pressures. Talking to teens about the dangers of drinking generally, the risk of alcohol poisoning, and what to do when a situation gets dangerous ensures that inexperience does not lead to a tragedy.
  • Store Products Safely – Alcohol poisoning can also happen when small children consume alcohol or certain household products by accident. Worse, the effects of alcohol poisoning are much worse on developing bodies. Storing dangerous substances up high in locked cabinets helps to prevent accidental ingestion.
  • Treat the Issue Seriously – If you or someone you know has suffered from alcohol poisoning, recovery does not stop after leaving the hospital. Ensuring that this and other forms of problematic drinking do not happen again requires honesty about the issue and ongoing medical/mental health care.

Who is at Risk of Alcohol Poisoning?

The answer is that anyone and everyone who consumes alcohol is at risk of alcohol poisoning. There is a very fine line between safe/unsafe drinking, and both novice and experienced drinkers are at risk. No one should consider themselves immune, but there are certain segments of drinkers who are at higher risk:

  • More middle age men die from alcohol poisoning than anyone else. The majority of these men tend to be non-Hispanic whites.
  • Teenagers and college students face pressure to binge drink and may not know how to respond when someone consumes dangerous amounts of alcohol.
  • Anyone with a history of problematic drinking is at risk of consuming too much or too habitually to avoid alcohol poisoning.

Sources:

  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386

  • https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholOverdoseFactsheet/Overdosefact.htm

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