Alcohol Poisoning: The Perils of Drinking Too Much

Alcohol Poisoning

Some people cannot stop after a drink or two. At least not on all days. It could be an innocent bet that they want to win. Or it could be that they are feeling particularly stressed out. Whatever the reason, “one more drink” can become “too much” before they know it.

About 6 people die of alcohol poisoning every day in the U.S.1

Alcohol poisoning is more common than you think. Know about the signs of alcohol poisoning and what should you do if someone around you exhibits these symptoms. A person who has had too much to drink may not be able to get help for himself; your actions can save a life.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

A person can have alcohol poisoning if he consumes a toxic amount of alcohol within a short period of time. Alcohol poisoning is overdosing to a deadly level.

Here’s the sequence of events that leads to alcohol poisoning:

  1. A person drinks a large amount of alcohol within a short time.
  2. His liver is unable to metabolize the alcohol and flush it out.
  3. Unmetabolized alcohol reaches the bloodstream.
  4. Blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) starts to rise.
  5. When BAC reaches toxic levels, physiological and mental functions are adversely affected.
Alcohol poisoning is a potentially life-threatening condition. It needs immediate medical attention.

What are the common symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

The common symptoms of alcohol poisoning includes vomiting, slow breathing, which is 8 breaths per minute, seizures, hypothermia or low body temperature, and irregular breathing pattern. You should also watch out for stupor, which is being conscious but unresponsive to touch, confusion, pale skin, and loss of motor coordination.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning:

The following are the tell-tale signs of alcohol poisoning:3

  • Mental confusion
  • Slow breathing, which is less than 8 breaths per minute
  • Irregular breathing, which is an interval of more than 10 seconds between each breath
  • Hypothermia or low body temperature
  • Loss of motor coordination
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Pale skin, sometimes with a bluish tinge
  • Stupor, which is being conscious but unresponsive to touch
  • Loss of consciousness

If you notice anyone exhibiting one or more of these signs after a bout of drinking, call for medical help immediately. Don’t wait for all the symptoms to show up.

Don’t ignore “drunken” behavior; these could be the early warning signs of alcohol poisoning. Drunkenness is a certain sign that the person has consumed more alcohol than what his liver can break down. Call immediately for medical help if you notice one or more of the following symptoms in a person who has been drinking:

  • Incoherent or “slurred” speech
  • Difficulty standing or walking
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to make and/or maintain eye contact

Remove all alcohol from near the person as you wait for medical help to arrive. Your prompt actions can prevent the onset of the life-threatening complications of alcohol poisoning.

Life-Threatening Complications of Alcohol Poisoning

Life-threatening signs of alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning can be fatal or cause irreversible physical and mental damage if it is not treated immediately. The following are the life-threatening complications of alcohol poisoning:

  • Choking: Alcohol irritates the stomach and causes vomiting. An unconscious person may choke on his own vomit.
  • Stoppage of Breathing: Inhaling vomit into the lungs can cause the person to stop breathing altogether.
  • Dehydration: Vomiting can lead to severe dehydration that, in turn, decreases blood pressure and quickens heart rate.
  • Cardiac Arrest: Low body temperature coupled with decreased blood pressure can lead to cardiac arrest.
  • Hypoglycemia: Vomiting can cause blood sugar levels to drop to dangerously low levels, which is a condition called hypoglycemia. If glucose is not administered promptly, the person can go into a coma or even die.
  • Brain Damage: Irregular breathing, cardiac arrest, and hypoglycemia can cause irreversible brain damage.

How Many Drinks Will Cause Alcohol Poisoning?

How many drinks lead to alcohol poisoning?

Five or more drinks for men, or four or more for women, over a two hour period is the rate of drinking that can lead to alcohol poisoning. Drinking at this rate, called binge drinking, is the most prevalent cause of alcohol poisoning, and raises the BAC to life-threatening levels.
Binge drinking raises the BAC to .08 percent, a level that causes increased physical and mental impairment. A BAC of 0.31-0.45 percent is considered life threatening.

Heavy drinking, which is a risk factor for binge drinking, is quantified as:

  • More than 4 drinks in a day or more than 14 per week, for men
  • More than 3 drinks in a day or more than 7 per week, for women

However, there is no set limit of drinks that will cause alcohol poisoning. People react to alcohol differently. So someone can have alcohol poisoning even if he does not drink a lethal amount.

If you drink, stick to the amounts specified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to prevent alcohol poisoning:

  • Up to 2 drinks per day, for men
  • Up to 1 drink per day, for women

Although drinking an excessive amount of alcohol within a short period of time increases the risk of alcohol poisoning, the following factors also contribute:

  • Body Weight and Height: People who have more muscle mass and/or fat cells in the body absorb less alcohol into the bloodstream.
  • Rate of Metabolism by the Liver: The rate at which the liver breaks down alcohol depends on how certain enzymes work in people and individual genetic makeup.
  • Presence or Absence of Food in the Stomach: Food slows down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.
  • Concentration of Alcohol in the Drink: The higher the concentration (for instance, distilled drinks contain more alcohol than those that are fermented), the more is the alcohol that reaches the bloodstream.
  • Presence of Other Drugs in the System: Some drugs like heroin and cocaine and prescription medicines like sedatives ad opioid painkillers magnify the toxic effects of alcohol.
  • Tolerance to Alcohol: Chronic alcohol users are more tolerant to the effects of high BAC levels.

What Should You Do If You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning?

Of course, the very first step would be to call for medical help. Call 911. While you are waiting for the paramedics to arrive, ensure that you keep the following do’s and don’ts in mind:4

Don’ts

There are some popular misconceptions regarding what to do when a person has alcohol poisoning. You want to help the person, but what you do might backfire and aggravate an existing symptom or trigger a new complication. So DON’T do the following:

  • Make him walk around. A person who has drank too much alcohol does not have control over his motor abilities. He might lose his balance, fall, and sustain injuries.
  • Make him lie down. If he is awake, do not make him lie down. If he vomits, he might choke in a supine position.
  • Make him drink coffee. Coffee makes dehydration worse. Severe dehydration can cause permanent brain damage.
  • Give him a cold shower. Alcohol lowers body temperature. A cold shower can induce hypothermia.
  • Make him vomit. Excessive alcohol in the system depresses the gag reflex. If you make him vomit, he might choke on his own vomit.
  • Make him drink more alcohol. This will increase the BAC further.
  • Leave him alone. As more alcohol from the stomach and the intestine is absorbed into the bloodstream, the BAC rises. This happens even if the person stops drinking. So new symptoms might show up or the existing ones might worsen; you have to be vigilant.

Do’s

As you stay with the person who has alcohol poisoning, DO the following to keep him safe and comfortable and manage his symptoms:

  • If unconscious, put him in the recovery position. Gently turn his head to one side to prevent him from choking.
  • If awake, make him sit upright. This will prevent choking if he vomits.
  • Keep him awake. Talk to him to keep him from losing consciousness.
  • Keep him warm. Make sure that his body temperature does not fall further.
  • Give him water, if he can swallow it. Water helps fight dehydration and aids the body in flushing out the toxins. However, ensure that the person is sitting when he takes the water and is not likely to choke on it.
  • Stay with him till medical help arrives. Stay with the person and keep an eye on him to prevent him from injuring himself unknowingly.

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is best treated at a medical facility where the person can be monitored constantly and his symptoms managed promptly. One or more of the following treatments may be administered here:

  • Intubation: A tube is sometimes inserted into the windpipe through the mouth to remove blockages from the airway and help him breathe.
  • Intravenous Administration: A person may need to be administered water, glucose, and vitamins to keep his vital signs stable and to provide nutrition to the body.
  • Catheterization: A catheter or a thin tube may be fitted to the bladder to drain urine straight into an attached bag. This keeps the person dry.
  • Stomach Pumping: The stomach is pumped after passing fluids through a tube fitted to the nose or mouth.
  • Dialysis: In some cases, kidney dialysis is carried out to speed up the removal of toxins from the body.

A person who has been drinking for a while may not realize that alcohol is taking over his mind and body. It does not take too many drinks to make the BAC shoot up to toxic highs. If a loved one has a tendency to binge drink, you must be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning.

Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome reversible?

No, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is not reversible. All the deficiencies caused by this condition will have to be managed throughout a person’s lifetime. However, there are medications and therapies readily available to help a person cope with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vital Signs Report
  2. Alcohol Overdose Fact Sheet by the National Institutes of Health
  3. CollegeDrinkingPrevention.gov, a resource developed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  4. Maine Department of Health and Human Services