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What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is an unintended side effect of drinking alcohol in large amounts, usually through binge drinking.
The amount of alcohol needed to cause alcohol poisoning can vary from person to person. However, alcohol poisoning ultimately happens when the level of alcohol in the person’s body (also known as their blood alcohol concentration or BAC) becomes high enough that the person’s body begins to shut down.
Factors that can influence the amount of alcohol needed to get alcohol poisoning include:
- Overall health
- Tolerance level
- Type of alcohol consumed
- If alcohol use occurs with other substance use
- How much food is in the person’s system
How Does Alcohol Poisoning Occur?
Whenever people consume alcohol, the body naturally filters it out of the bloodstream through the liver. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the body can only process roughly one unit of alcohol an hour (e.g., 12oz beer, 5oz glass of wine, or 1.5oz shot).
When you drink more than what your body can process in an hour, you begin to experience “drunkenness.” However, if the alcohol level in the body gets too high, it can lead to an alcohol overdose.
Alcohol Poisoning Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2010 and 2012, an average of six people died a day in the U.S. from alcohol poisoning.
The CDC also reports the following alcohol overdose data:
- Nearly 75% of all alcohol poisoning deaths are among adults between the ages of 35 and 64
- Roughly 76% of all people who die from alcohol poisoning are men
- Indigenous Americans (i.e., Native Americans and Alaskan Natives) have the most alcohol poisoning deaths per million people of any race in the U.S.
- Alaska has the most alcohol poisoning deaths per million people
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
The symptoms of alcohol poisoning can occur quickly and can be severe. Knowing some common signs of alcohol poisoning can help determine when to seek medical attention.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Irregular breathing (a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)
- Poor coordination
- Clammy skin
- Slowed breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
- Passing out
- Blackouts (memory gaps)
- Blue or pale skin
If you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.
Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose
If not treated right away, the dangerous side effects of alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening. For instance, alcohol poisoning suppresses the gag reflex, increasing the chances of asphyxiation (i.e., the risk of choking on your own vomit).
Below are some of the consequences of alcohol poisoning:
- Severe dehydration, often leading to permanent brain damage
- Extremely low body temperature, causing hypothermia
- Loss of consciousness
- Asphyxiation on one’s vomit
- Irregular heart rate and possible heart attack
- Drop in blood sugar, which can cause seizures
What to Do if You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning
If you suspect someone you know is suffering from alcohol poisoning, you must get them medical attention immediately. The longer they go without medical help, the more severe (and permanent) their symptoms can become.
If you see someone experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately before doing anything else.
After you have called 911, you can do the following while waiting for the ambulance to arrive:
- Wait with the person
- Keep them awake
- Have them sit upright
- Have them drink water
- Keep them warm
- If they are unconscious, maneuver them onto their side to prevent them from choking on their vomit (known as the recovery position)
Once the paramedics arrive, offer any information you know, especially details like:
- The person’s symptoms
- How long since symptoms began
- How much the individual drank
What NOT to Do
In addition to the things above that you should do, there are things you should not do under any circumstances. While well-meaning, these attempts to help the person with alcohol poisoning will not help and, in some cases, can make things worse.
The following tactics have been disproven and do not help the inebriated person:
- Giving them coffee or a cold shower to “sober them up”
- Encourage them to “walk it off”
- Inducing vomiting
- Forcing the person to eat
- Leaving the person unattended to “sleep it off”
Instead, as mentioned above, if you suspect a person is suffering from an alcohol overdose, call 911 and stay with them until help arrives.
How is Alcohol Poisoning Treated?
Once under the care and supervision of medical professionals, doctors will use various methods to treat alcohol poisoning.
Some of these treatment methods include:
- Stomach pumping
- Blood filtration
- IV fluids
Get Help For Alcohol Poisoning
If you think that you or someone you know might be showing signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. The longer you wait, the more susceptible you or the person you know becomes to suffering potentially permanent medical issues, including death.