Alcohol Poisoning occurs in different ways. It can be accidental as when a child consumes household products containing alcohol. However, the most common form of alcohol poisoning is drinking too much too quickly. Alcohol overdose kills. Alcohol overdose does not receive nearly the attention in the press that a DUI does but is all too common in both adolescents and adults.
- Historically, death by alcohol poisoning has been under-reported in the US.
- The general perception that alcohol poisoning deaths are most common among college students is not the case. Middle aged, unmarried and less educated men appear equally or more at risk.
- Evidence indicates that fatalities due to a mix of alcohol and other drugs is a significant problem.
When someone dies of alcohol poisoning one of two things usually happen. Either the depressant level of the alcohol was so high that the drinker stopped breathing and their heart stopped beating or they passed out and choked on their own vomit. Either way, many of these deaths are preventable through greater intoxication monitoring, alcohol education, and public awareness of the signs of reaction to the symptoms of alcohol overdose.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol is a depressant which acts on the brain and central nervous system function. A lethal dose of alcohol will slow and eventually stop breathing. Death may also be hastened by a loss of the gag reflex which normally prevents one from choking on their own vomit. Even if death does not occur, an alcohol overdose can leave its victim with irreversible brain damage. It is a good idea to educate yourself, your family and your friends to recognize and react to the symptoms of alcohol overdose. Allowing an overdose victim to “sleep it off” can be deadly.
Lethal Dose Definition
A "lethal dose" is defined as the BAC level at which death from alcohol poisoning occurs in half the population. BACs in .4 - .5 range meet this criteria. A 100-pound woman who consumes 9-10 standard drinks in less than one hour would put themselves in the lethal dose range.
Just as individual tolerances to alcohol differ, each and every sign of alcohol poisoning may not be present in every victim. However, any of the following should be cause for serious alarm.
- Binge drinking. The consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a short time.
- Vomiting is common with alcohol poisoning since alcohol irritates the stomach. When combined with unconsciousness, vomiting can easily lead to death by asphyxiation. Many alcohol overdose fatalities are found with their lungs full of vomit.
- Coma, unconsciousness or the inability to be roused. Don’t assume that “sleeping it off” is the right, best or only course of action. A person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while passed out.
- Increasing mental confusion and stupor even after ceasing to drink. Alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream well after the drinking has stopped. Don’t assume BAC levels are stable or declining if no alcohol is present. Rapid increases in BAC levels is especially dangerous in binge drinking.
- Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute).
- Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).
- Hypothermia (low body temperature), pale or bluish skin color.
- Seizures from hypoglycemia or too little blood sugar.
What Should I Do?
The body metabolizes alcohol (ie. burns off) at roughly 1 drink per hour. Consuming at a faster rate will invariably cause your Breathalizer readings (your breath alcohol content) to increase. No amount of coffee, cold showers, exercise, water, or fresh air will negate the alcohol you have consumed. Only time will sober you up. If your BAC reading is over the legal limit of .08 never drive. And never assume your breathalyzer reading will fall immediately after you cease drinking.
- If unconscious try to wake the person by calling to them, pinching or slapping their face. If awake don’t leave the person alone as their blood alcohol content (BAC) may still be on the rise. Try to keep the victim from re-lapsing into unconsciousness.
- If the individual remains unconscious or barely able to wake up, take precautionary measures to help prevent them choking on their vomit. Turn them on their side. Begin by putting their arm above their head. Bend their opposite knee and roll them toward you so that they are resting on their side, preferably their left side. Putting the person on their left side may slow the delivery of alcohol to the small intestine and also allow more air to surface from the right lung.
- Call 911 immediately for help if any of the symptoms are present. Be prepared to provide information. Be sure to tell hospital or emergency personnel whatever you know about the amount of alcohol and time over which it was ingested.
- Stay with the person. Frequently unconscious victims are left alone as friends flee for fear of getting into trouble.
- Doing nothing is not an option.
Alcohol makes you feel warmer because it causes blood to rise to the skin's surface. However, when this happens, body temperature actually lowers because your body heat escapes more rapidly.
What Not to Do
- Don't try to guess the level of intoxication
- Don't try to induce vomiting
- Don't leave an unconscious person alone
- Don't allow the person to drive a car or ride a bicycle
- Don't exercise the person
- Don't give the person a cold shower
- Don't give them food, liquid, or medicines to try and sober them up. The only thing that can sober someone up is time or prompt medical attention.
In the News
Life's Hard Lesson - Read more
Facts about Alcohol Poisoning - Read more