What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Many people consume alcohol every day, although a surprising number of individuals in the US consume too much. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are approximately 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths per year, which is around six per day. Because not many people understand the limits of alcohol tolerance in the body, alcohol poisoning can occur rapidly, without much warning.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person consumes too much alcohol, which floods the bloodstream and begins to affect areas of the brain that control vital physical functions like breathing, heart rate, and temperature. Depressed or uneven breathing, cool body temperature, and seizures are all potential symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
While alcohol poisoning can occur if a person accidentally consumes ethanol through a household product or other form, for the most part, alcohol poisoning happens when a person drinks too many alcoholic beverages in too short a time. The liver can process one serving of alcohol per hour, with one serving being:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, like whiskey, tequila, gin, rum, or vodka
Binge drinking is a major cause of alcohol poisoning and related death in the US. The definition of binge drinking is four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women, and five or more drinks in the same time period for men. Although binge drinking is primarily associated with college students, the CDC found that the demographic group who suffered from alcohol poisoning most often was middle-aged adults. People between the ages of 35 and 64 suffered from alcohol poisoning more often than young adults. This could be in part due to changes in body chemistry as people age, the number of prescription medications that could interact with alcohol, and also changes in drug preferences in the two demographics. White, middle-aged men were the most likely to die from alcohol poisoning, compared to other groups.
Statistically, 90 percent of binge drinkers who experienced alcohol poisoning were not dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Confusion or disorientation
- Inability to stay conscious
- Cold or clammy skin
- Lack of physical coordination, including an inability to walk
- Irregular pulse
- Depressed breathing
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Blue-tinged skin, especially around the lips or under the fingernails
What are the Effects of Alcohol Poisoning on the Body?
Because the liver can only process one serving of alcohol per hour, if a person drinks two servings, there will be an extra unit in the person’s system, which takes extra time to process. Alcohol is typically consumed in liquid form as a drink, so it enters the bloodstream and goes to the brain via digestion in the stomach and intestines. This is one of the slower processes for consuming an intoxicating substance, which means that the number of drinks a person has consumed may not be completely in the bloodstream when the person begins to show symptoms of extreme alcohol intoxication or poisoning. The person could still be affected by continued digestion of alcohol, even if they are already suffering from alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning affects the body by:
- Slowing brain functions, starting with balance and coordination, but eventually affecting other body systems
- Irritating the stomach and causing vomiting
- Stopping gag reflex as muscles lose sensitivity and coordination, which can lead the individual to choke on their own vomit
- Affecting the nerves that control heartbeat and breathing, which can cause these functions to slow down, become irregular, or stop altogether
- Drastically lowering blood sugar, leading to seizures
- Lowering body temperature, which can cause hypothermia
- Dehydrating the body, which can lead to brain damage
How to Help Someone Suffering from Alcohol Poisoning
In the event a person suffers from alcohol poisoning, immediately call 911. Stay with the individual to prevent accidental self-harm or to prevent the person from choking on their own vomit if unconscious. It is vitally important to get emergency medical help as soon as possible, even if the person is conscious and speaking, because there is likely more alcohol in the person’s stomach that will be processed, and this could increase the degree of alcohol poisoning.
After calling 911 for emergency medical help, there are other steps to take to help a person who is experiencing alcohol poisoning. These include:
- Keep the person awake if possible.
- Keep the person informed. Let the person know if you are going to touch them or perform any action on them, as some individuals may become aggressive.
- Keep the person sitting.
- If the person is conscious and able to swallow, try to get them to slowly drink water.
- If the person is unconscious and lying down, carefully roll them onto their side with their arms over their head so they will not choke on their own vomit.
- Get a warm blanket for the person, as alcohol poisoning will likely make them feel cold.
Things NOT To Do for Someone Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning
Urban myths suggest that food, coffee, sudden shocks, or medication can help a person sober up faster. However, when a person is suffering from alcohol poisoning, the only way to help is to get emergency medical attention as quickly as possible.
If you suspect alcohol poisoning, call 911 and take some of the above steps. Do not perform any of the following:
- Do not give the person coffee, because caffeine can cause further dehydration.
- Do not attempt to feed the person, because they may choke on the food due to a lack of gag reflex or ability to swallow.
- Do not give the person any other medications, because mixing drugs and alcohol will likely make the alcohol poisoning worse.
- Do not make the person throw up to get alcohol out of the stomach, because their gag reflex will likely not work and they could choke.
- Do not walk the person around, in an attempt to “walk it off,” because their reduced physical coordination could lead to falls or other accidental harm.
- Do not put the person in a cold shower, because that could increase hypothermia.
- Do not let the person “sleep it off,” because alcohol is likely still digesting into their bloodstream and their symptoms could get much worse.
- Do not leave the person alone.
- Do not allow the person to drink more alcohol.
Once the individual is at the hospital, they will receive medical treatment and remain monitored until doctors know the alcohol has been processed out of their system and there is no remaining damage that should be treated.
Professional medical treatment for alcohol poisoning may include:
- Monitoring by doctors and nurses
- Intubating or other methods to prevent choking and allow breathing
- Oxygen therapy
- Intravenous fluids to rehydrate the person
- Vitamins and glucose to raise blood sugar and prevent seizures
- Stomach pumping to remove alcohol remaining in the stomach
- Hemodialysis, especially for people who accidentally consume ethanol from household products or other means, to filter toxins and waste from the blood directly
How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning?
There are steps everyone can take to prevent alcohol poisoning. These steps include:
- Drink in moderation, or stick to one drink per hour.
- Drink water after every one or two drinks.
- Do not drink on an empty stomach.
- Avoid drinking games or situations where there is pressure to drink too much.
- Do not mix alcohol with other substances, including prescription medications.
How to Get Help after Alcohol Poisoning?
If a person experiences alcohol poisoning, it does not necessarily mean an alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, is present, though people struggling with alcohol use disorder do have an increased risk of experiencing alcohol poisoning. Rehabilitation programs can help those in need to fully recover from alcohol abuse. Medical detox is always needed in cases of alcohol withdrawal since withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening in some instances. Comprehensive therapy should follow medical detox, ensuring the issues behind the substance abuse are fully addressed.