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A How to Guide for Avoiding Alcohol Poisoning

It’s a sad fact that people engage in a dangerous drinking patterns, often without realizing the many serious consequences. This drinking pattern affects one’s breathing, heart rate, body temperature and gag reflex. Complications can lead to coma and death. It occurs when large amounts of alcohol are consumed over a short period, leading to a condition called alcohol poisoning.

What is alcohol poisoning?

As described by the Mayo Clinic, a person is said to have alcohol poisoning (sometimes referred to as alcohol overdose) if they have consumed a toxic amount of alcohol–an amount that overwhelms the body’s ability to process it and metabolize it, so that harmful consequences result.  Alcohol poisoning is especially dangerous because a person can consume a fatal dose before losing consciousness; their blood alcohol concentration may continue to rise even after they have passed out.

Main Causes of Alcohol Poisoning

About 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths occur each year, and a major cause is binge drinking, which is defined as a pattern of heavy drinking when a male rapidly consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours, or a female rapidly consumes at least four drinks within two hours. One standard drink refers to an alcoholic beverage that contains approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol. Each of these equal one standard drink:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces
  • Hard liquor: 1 and 1.5 fluid ounces

An alcohol binge can occur over hours or last up to several days. Binge drinking has often been linked to young adults and college students. But according to the National Institute on Alcohol and Abuse & Alcoholism, about three quarters of alcohol poisoning deaths take place among individuals between the ages 35 and 64; and in almost a third of these deaths, chronic alcoholism is identified as a leading

It takes approximately one hour for the body to metabolize (via the liver) 0.25 ounces of alcohol, and alcohol can be absorbed into the bloodstream in as little as 30 minutes after drinking.  So as a person drinks more, their blood alcohol content (BAC) level continues to climb. The BAC level keeps increasing for up to 40 minutes after the last drink is consumed.

A BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is the level that determines drunk driving. A BAC level between 0.10 to 0.12 percent will begin to impair one’s coordination and memory. Anything higher than that will bring on additional harmful side effects, such as blacking out, potentially choking on vomit, or experiencing sudden, extreme reduction in breathing.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning usually include at least some of the following symptoms But it is important to remember that alcohol poisoning may be present even if all of these symptoms aren’t present.

The most common symptoms:

  • Irregular breathing
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Pale, clammy, bluish-tinged skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Incoherency

In serious cases:

  • Extreme confusion, stupor, inability to wake up; coma
  • Continuous vomiting (risk of inhaling/choking on vomit)
  • Increased heart rate and lowered blood pressure
  • Slow breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Decreased body temperature and/or chills; difficulty regulating body temperature to re-warm
  • Hypothermia (signs: paleness and bluish skin color)
  • Severe dehydration (that can potentially cause seizures and brain damage)
  • If medical attention is not quickly administered, breathing may stop completely and/or a heart attack may occur.

Known Risk factors

A number of factors can increase the risk of alcohol poisoning, including:

  • The person’s size and weight
  • Their overall health
  • Whether they have eaten recently
  • Whether they are combining alcohol with other drugs
  • The percentage of alcohol in the drinks being consumed
  • The number of drinks being consumed and the rate of consumption
  • The person’s tolerance for alcohol

What to Do for a Person Suspected of Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning

A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical attention. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call for emergency medical help right away. Don’t wait for all the critical signs to be present; provide help immediately.  Take the following steps:

  • Call 911 for emergency medical assistance and be prepared to provide information (location, symptoms, how much alcohol consumed, etc.).
  • Try to keep the person awake.
  • If the person is vomiting, try to keep him or her sitting up. Or roll them onto their side to prevent choking.
  • Never leave them alone.
  • If the person is unconscious, check for breathing and be prepared to administer CPR if necessary.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t give them coffee (caffeine will worsen the dehydration); but if they can take it without choking, give them water.
  • Do not give them any more alcohol to drink.
  • Do not give them food (danger of gagging).
  • Do not try to make them walk (danger of falling).

Dangerous “Remedies”

Some people think that you can reverse the effects of alcohol poisoning by treating the symptoms in similar ways that you would treat a hangover. But this is not the case, and you could actually make things worse by taking some of these actions. These techniques don’t work:

  • Sleeping it off — a person can lose consciousness while asleep and choke on vomit.
  • Drinking black coffee or consuming other forms of caffeine ― caffeine does not counteract the effects of alcohol poisoning.
  • A cold shower — the shock of cold water could cause a loss of consciousness.
  • Walking it off ― this does not increase the speed at which alcohol leaves the body; and walking while drunk with impaired physical coordination could lead to a fall and potential injury.

Preventative Steps to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning

An overdose related to alcohol consumption (alcohol poisoning) can be prevented. Adhere to the following suggestions to avoid this potentially fatal complication:

  • Consume no more than one serving of alcohol per hour.
  • Do not consume alcoholic beverages on an empty stomach.
  • Do not take part in binge drinking games or challenges.
  • Avoid drinking when you are feeling depressed or lonely.

With common sense and moderation, the dangers of alcohol poisoning need never be a part of your life.


Images courtesy of iStock

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