Many people drink alcohol every day, and a surprising number of Americans consume too much in general. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths occur each year, which equals around six per day. Because few people understand the limits of alcohol tolerance in the body, alcohol poisoning can occur rapidly and with little warning.
Alcohol poisoning occurs after a person has abused alcohol and consumed too much, which accumulates in the bloodstream and begins to impact areas of the brain that control vital bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate. Depressed or labored breathing, severely reduced body temperature, and seizures are all possible signs of alcohol poisoning.
The liver can process only about 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 liquor, including whiskey, gin, tequila, rum, or vodka
Binge drinking is a significant cause of alcohol poisoning in the U.S. “Binge drinking” technically means consuming four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women, and five or more drinks in the same period for men.
Although binge drinking is predominantly associated with college students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the group who suffered from alcohol poisoning the most often was middle-aged adults.
Moreover, people aged 35-64 suffer from alcohol poisoning more often than young adults. This could be due, in part, to changes in body chemistry as people age, the number of prescription drugs that could compound the effects of alcohol, and changes in drug preferences between the two demographics.
White, middle-aged males were the most likely to fall fatally ill from alcohol poisoning when compared to other groups. Startlingly, 90% of binge drinkers who suffered from alcohol poisoning were not reported as being dependent on alcohol.
Effects of Alcohol Poisoning
Because the liver can process only about one serving of alcohol per hour, if a person drinks two or more servings, there will be one or more extra units in the person’s system, which takes a longer time to process.
Alcohol is typically consumed in liquid form, so it enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain through digestion in the stomach and intestines. Oral consumption is one of the slower processes for administering an intoxicating substance, meaning that the number of drinks a person has ingested may not have fully reached the bloodstream when the person begins exhibiting signs of alcohol poisoning or extreme intoxication.
Alcohol poisoning affects the body by:
- Impairing brain functions, starting with balance and coordination and eventually affecting other systems in the body
- Irritating the stomach and causing nausea and vomiting
- Impeding the gag reflex as muscles lose sensitivity and coordination, which can result in the person choking on their own vomit
- Affecting the nerves that regulate heartbeat and breathing, which can cause these functions to decelerate, become irregular, or stop altogether
- Drastically reducing blood sugar, leading to seizures
- Decreasing body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia
- Dehydration, which can cause brain damage
Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
Signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Inability to remain conscious
- Cold, clammy skin
- Impaired physical coordination, including an inability to walk
- Irregular pulse/heart rate
- Depressed breathing
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Blue-tinged skin (cyanosis) especially around the lips or fingernails
How to Help Someone Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning
If someone is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, immediately call 911. Remain close to the individual to prevent accidental self-harm or choking if unconscious. It is critically important to seek emergency medical help as soon as possible, even if the person is conscious and communicating because there is probably more alcohol in the person’s stomach that will be processed that could soon further increase alcohol levels in the bloodstream.
After calling 911, there are other steps you can take to help a person who is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, including the following:
- Keep the person awake, alert, and sitting if possible.
- Let the person know beforehand if you are going to touch them or perform any action on them, as some people may become aggressive.
- Give a warm blanket to the person, as alcohol poisoning will likely make them feel cold.
- If the person can still swallow and is conscious, encourage them to sip on water slowly.
- If the person is unconscious and resting, roll them onto their side with their arms over their head to ensure that they do not aspirate their own vomit.
Do not do any of the following:
- Do not offer the person coffee, because caffeine can lead to further dehydration.
- Do not attempt to give the person any food, because he or she may choke on the food due to an impaired gag reflex or ability to swallow.
- Do not allow the person to have any other medications or drugs, because combining alcohol and other substances can make alcohol poisoning worse.
- Do not make the person vomit to get alcohol out of the stomach, because their gag reflex may not work and they could choke.
- Do not try to get the person to “walk it off,” because their impaired physical coordination could result in falls or other accidents.
- Do not attempt to give the person a cold shower, because this could increase the risk of hypothermia.
- Do not let the person simply “sleep it off” because alcohol is probably still digesting into their bloodstream and symptoms could get much worse.
- Do not leave the person by themselves.
- Do not allow the person to consume more alcohol.
Once the person is at the hospital, they will receive medical treatment and be monitored until doctors are sure the alcohol has been processed out of their system and no residual damage is present that should be addressed.
Medical assistance for alcohol poisoning may include:
- Monitoring by physicians and nurses
- Intubating or other means to prevent choking and allow breathing
- Oxygen therapy
- Intravenous fluids for rehydration
- Vitamins and glucose to increase blood sugar and prevent seizures
- Stomach pumping to remove any alcohol remaining in the stomach
How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning
There are a handful of steps that everyone can take to prevent alcohol poisoning, including the following:
- Drink in moderation and stick to one drink per hour.
- Drink water after or with every drink, if possible.
- Do not drink on an empty stomach.
- Avoid drinking games or situations where there will be pressure to drink excessively.
- Do not combine alcohol with other substances, including prescription medications.
Getting Help After Alcohol Poisoning
If a person seems to be suffering and has signs of alcohol poisoning, it does not necessarily mean that alcoholism is present. However, people struggling with an alcohol use disorder do have an increased risk of experiencing alcohol poisoning.
Rehab programs, such as those offered by Harmony Treatment and Wellness, can help those in need to recover from alcohol abuse fully. Using an integrated approach to addiction, we employ evidence-based services essential to recovery, including psychotherapy, counseling, and group support.
Our compassionate medical and mental health providers deliver these services to clients with care and expertise. We can help you reclaim the fulfilling life you deserve! Contact us today to find out how!