Alcohol Overdose: What are the Signs of Alcohol Poisoning?
The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that across the United States alone there are 261 alcohol-related deaths every day. 2,200 people in the US die from alcohol poisoning every year.
Alcohol poisoning is the result of an alcohol overdose, and it occurs when a person’s blood contains excessive amounts of alcohol, leading to serious or even near-fatal symptoms. Blood alcohol levels can be dangerously high when a person consumes an excessive amount of alcohol within a short span of time. It should be noted that every individual has a different tolerance level for alcohol.
A dangerous overdose happens when the body is overwhelmed to process, break down, and remove alcohol from the bloodstream. This brings about a sudden spike in the BAC or blood alcohol concentration levels.
When this happens, a person’s ability to control any bodily functions is severely impaired. If medical care is not provided immediately, there is a high chance of permanent damage to the brain or even death.
(Read ahead to understand more about the reasons & signs of alcohol poisoning)
Yes, drinking heavily can bring about commonly understood symptoms such as labored breathing, vomiting, or behaving/acting irresponsibly. However, alcohol poisoning presents a bigger risk. It can lead to life-threatening seizures or cardiac attacks as it tends to suppress vital life functions.
Typical symptoms of drinking a bit too much, such as reduced motor coordination or poor decision-making, can quickly worsen, hiding the fact that alcohol poisoning is setting in. In turn, this increases the threat of losing consciousness and turning heavy drinking into something fatal.
Role of BAC in Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is largely dictated by blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Even the smallest increases in BAC can lead to impaired motor coordination along with commonly understood signs of overdrinking, such as nausea. Alcohol passes through the stomach and intestine and continues to enter the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body. This process is why BAC can even rise when a person has stopped drinking.
This typically happens when high amounts of alcohol have been consumed in a short span of time, such as binge drinking. The signs of alcohol poisoning might take some time to surface simply because the body needs time to process the alcohol.
As the BAC levels continue to rise, it raises a person's risk of suffering from alcohol poisoning. Not just slurred speech or violent behavior, dangerously high BAC levels cause blackouts or even total loss of consciousness—passing out. If medical help is not provided in time, there is every chance of a fatality.
As the BAC levels rise, the following symptoms are most likely to emerge:
Looking pale – bluish tinge to the skin
Stumbling – unable to maintain proper posture or gait when seated or walking
Damp, cold skin
Slurred speech and the inability to think clearly – confusion
As the BAC levels further rise, the following signs of alcohol poisoning are likely to develop:
Inability to stay awake – a state of stupor where the individual becomes unresponsive but looks conscious
Slow, slugging breathing rate – labored breathing
Body shaking – feeling the shivers along with low body temperature or hypothermia
As BAC increases, more serious symptoms of alcohol poisoning can surface. These include:
Gagging as the person chokes on his own vomit
Seizures as the blood glucose levels drop dangerously [comatose-type condition]
Brain damage due to excessive loss of fluid [extreme dehydration]
Different Causes & Risk Factors of Alcohol Poisoning
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings BAC levels to 0.08 g/dL or higher. This typically occurs after a woman consumes 4 or more drinks or a man consumes 5 or more drinks.
An alcohol overdose is associated with binge drinking or high-intensity drinking, but this might not always be the cause. Alcohol poisoning can also happen to someone who is not used to consuming alcohol and has extremely low levels of alcohol tolerance.
The prevalence of alcohol poisoning does have some patterns, as it is more common among men and middle-aged adults. However, this does not mean that younger people are not likely to suffer from alcohol poisoning.
Sometimes, the use of prescription drugs or products that contain minimal levels of alcohol before, during, or after the consumption of alcohol or alcoholic beverages can cause alcohol poisoning.
Alcoholism or alcohol dependence along with binge drinking are among the more commonly seen causes of alcoholic poisoning. The symptoms of alcoholism might surface differently across individuals even if they consume the same amount of alcohol in the same span of time. Something as basic as when a person last had a meal before consuming alcohol can slow down or worsen the signs of alcohol poisoning.
The severity & onset of alcohol poisoning symptoms is affected by:
Age, body weight, and gender
Any prescription drug in the bloodstream – some drugs can fasten/worsen the symptoms
How quickly a person consumes alcohol and the time span to consume it
Overall state of health – the person might be suffering from high-risk chronic or acute illness
A person’s inherent alcohol tolerance – alcohol tolerance varies across every person
What to do when you witness someone suffering from signs of alcohol poisoning?
It is difficult to quickly identify someone suffering from the symptoms of alcohol poisoning symptoms versus someone who’s simply drunk. The latter case usually does not need medical intervention. However, the risks of alcohol poisoning cannot be mitigated by sleeping it off.
A drunk person who seems semi-conscious can quickly slip into a state of coma and can be more vulnerable to near-fatal outcomes such as choking on one's vomit. This is because when alcohol levels are extremely high, brain signals controlling automatic bodily responses like the gag reflex are impaired. The affected person can even die due to asphyxiation or lack of oxygen in such a condition.
Seeking prompt medical help is the best way to save a life rather than trying anything else which might only worsen the symptoms and increase the chances of causing long-term damage. At no point should you try to treat alcohol poisoning at home or anywhere else unless you have professional training as a medical care provider.
Until an ambulance or medical help arrives, a few things can be done, such as:
Monitoring them without trying to medicate
Try to keep the person in an upright, seated position
Make the person sip water, if possible
Make the person turn to one side – can prevent chances of choking due to vomiting
Ensuring the person gets sufficient room to breathe
Try to keep the person awake – talking to the person might help
Cover the person with a blanket – helps to fight away the hypothermia
When medical responders arrive on the scene, try to share as much information as possible, such as:
Any health conditions the person suffers from
Any medication consumed along with alcohol
All signs of alcohol overdose that can be recalled
When you see a person suffering from possible signs of alcohol poisoning, don’t try to make the person:
Get up suddenly
Take a cold shower
Knowing the Facts Can Help to Keep Away Alcohol Poisoning
Keeping a tab on how many drinks you can hold on to before getting incoherent is important. This can be very handy to prevent binge drinking which is a rather common cause of alcohol poisoning. It is also good to have information that can prevent the chances of suffering from alcohol poisoning.
For starters, knowing your limit in terms of how many drinks you can manage without losing control is vital. It is good to know what is meant by ‘one drink’ and the amount of alcohol found in the most commonly consumed forms of alcohol.
For instance, 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol amounts to one drink. This changes for wine where 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol makes up a drink. For hard liquor, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor constitutes one drink.
You should also know that most alcoholic beverages or drinks are likely to contain ethanol or ethyl alcohol. There are other forms of alcohol too, such as methanol or isopropyl alcohol (also called rubbing alcohol) but these are not meant for common consumption.
Easy things you can do to prevent alcohol poisoning:
Try to drink in moderation
Try to hydrate as much as possible before, after, and when consuming alcohol
Keep away from games or competitions that can make you compete irrationally
Don’t mix your medications with your drinks
Drinking on an empty stomach is not a good idea – try to catch a snack
Seek professional help for alcohol abuse
Keep Up Your Guard Against Alcohol Poisoning
If you are unclear about how to manage your drinking, get a professional consultation. A physician can help you better understand how much you should drink in an hour, day, or week. It is important that you understand the naturally depressive effects of alcohol. Even the smallest amount of drinking can bring about a feeling of relaxation.
However, this can quickly turn into drowsiness and become a physical risk to yourself and others around you.
When you are drinking in a group, try to be watchful about the first signs of overdose, such as anybody losing consciousness and calling in the emergency team, as only medical professionals should attempt to provide any of the alcohol poisoning treatments.
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