If you or someone you know is prone to binge drinking, being aware of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning could help you to literally save a life.
If you are prone to drinking too much alcohol yourself over short periods of time, educating yourself about the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning could also help you stay safe from harm.
We’ll look at some of the most common signs and symptoms that could indicate a night of fun is spiraling out of control and specifically at alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol Poisoning: A Brief Definition
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) both define binge drinking as:
- 4 drinks in 2 hours for women
- 5 drinks in 2 hours for men
The definition of a standard drink varies from country to country. In the US, a standard drink contains 14g of alcohol. This is the equivalent to 12oz of beer (5% alcohol), 5oz of wine (12% alcohol) or 1.5oz of spirits (40% alcohol).
Drinking this much alcohol this quickly leads to dramatically increased blood alcohol concentration (BAC) causing your liver to struggle to process the alcohol as it continues to flood your system.
If you drink enough alcohol at a rapid enough rate, your BAC levels reach the point of toxicity resulting in alcohol poisoning. Moreover, BAC levels can continue to rise for 40 minutes after the last drink has been consumed.
So, while binge drinking does not automatically lead to alcohol poisoning and not all cases of alcohol poisoning occur as a result of binge drinking, there’s a clear link between the two. Drinking too much too quickly is bad news.
What Causes Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning comes about when toxins in the bloodstream reach dangerous levels. Each time an alcoholic drink enters your system, your liver needs to filter the toxins in alcohol from your bloodstream.
Where food tends to make its way much more slowly into the bloodstream, alcohol travels much more rapidly.
The liver’s capacity for processing alcohol is limited to the equivalent of just half of one standard drink of alcohol every hour. This means that if you keep consuming alcohol at a brisker rate than your liver processes it, toxins build up in your bloodstream. It’s this imbalance between toxins in and toxins out that precipitates alcohol poisoning.
While not always the case, alcohol poisoning usually occurs after drinking too much in a concentrated time frame.
It’s also possible to get alcohol poisoning from ingesting household products containing alcohol. This is uncommon, though.
How Much Does It Take To Cause Alcohol Poisoning?
The first thing to be aware of is that there are multiple variables that can impact how much alcohol triggers alcohol poisoning including:
- Your weight
- Your gender
- Your tolerance level for alcohol
As a guideline, BAC levels of over 0.08% place you over the legal limit for driving in the US.
When levels reach 0.1%, the chance of serious side effects starts increasing. While not inevitable, the chances of alcohol poisoning occurring increase exponentially the more you drink and the higher those BAC levels become.
For someone weighing 100 pounds, this could be after as few as 3 standard drinks while someone weighing 200 pounds might get away with as many as 7 standard drinks before blood alcohol concentration gets to these dangerous levels.
So, given that there’s absolutely no fixed amount of alcohol that can be used an accurate benchmark of when to expect alcohol poisoning, it pays to have a thorough understanding of symptoms to look out for.
We’ll look first at the more commonplace signs that might indicate alcohol poisoning then we’ll laser in on some of the real flash points requiring immediate medical attention.
What Are The Most Common Symptoms
There’s a very fine line between what appears as standard drunkenness and alcohol poisoning. You should never ignore these symptoms of alcohol poisoning as it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
With an average of 6 American dying each day from alcohol poisoning, it’s crucial to know what signs to look out for if you or anyone you know binge drinks.
Rather than waiting for severe side effects, monitor for any of the following and take prompt action in the event of the following:
- Abnormal breathing rhythm with long gaps between breaths
- General unresponsiveness while still remaining conscious (stupor)
- Loss of coordination
- Lowered body temperature
- Passing out to the point of unconsciousness
- Skin that becomes pale or clammy to the touch
- Slow breathing
More Serious Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
As well as the more common signs above, there are some even more serious symptoms that call for prompt, decisive action.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), life-threatening signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Blue tinge to the skin
- Inability to wake up
- Irregular breathing with more than 10 seconds between breaths
- Slow breathing with fewer than 8 breaths a minute
These breathing issues can escalate to the extent that the person stops breathing completely while vomiting can cause potentially fatal choking on the vomit, especially if the person loses consciousness.
Lowered blood sugar levels can bring about seizures and dehydration can become so severe it might even prompt brain damage.
We outline these possible outcomes not to be alarmist but to underscore how critical it is to take action if you suspect you or anyone you know might be suffering from alcohol poisoning.
Before looking at what you should do to help someone with alcohol poisoning, it’s equally important to know what to avoid.
What NOT To Do When Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning
There are a few common myths about dealing with alcohol poisoning that need to be shattered.
Allowing someone to “sleep it off” is a poor practice that could lead to disastrous consequences. The levels of alcohol in the bloodstream can continue to rise even when no more alcohol is being consumed.
Strong black coffee will do nothing to reduce those elevated blood alcohol concentration levels. It will simply worsen dehydration.
Attempting to sober someone up by suggesting a cold shower is unhelpful and potentially dangerous, especially if their body temperature is already low. Rather than helping, a cold shower could actually bring on hypothermia.
Inducing vomiting is unwise. Since the gag reflex will be impaired, this could increase the chances of the person choking on their own vomit.
Don’t try to force the person to walk around in an attempt to keep them alert since brain function and balance will be out of kilter.
While it might seem obvious, under no circumstances whatsoever allow the person to drink more alcohol.
What, then, should you do if you suspect alcohol poisoning?
How To Help A Person With Alcohol Poisoning
Any suspicion of alcohol poisoning should be considered a potentially life-threatening emergency and should be treated as such.
You should call 911 immediately and take the following precautions while you’re waiting for an ambulance to arrive:
- Stay alert and do not panic. Help is on the way
- Ensure the person remains in an upright position
- If you cannot prevent the person from lying down, tilt their head to one side
- Do not allow the person to fall asleep
- Never leave the person alone
- Encourage the person to drink some water if they can manage it
- If the person falls unconscious, put them into the recovery position
You should have as much information as possible about the person and how much alcohol they have consumed so you can provide this to the medical responders.
Once the ambulance arrives, you’ll have done your part in maximizing the chances but what happens next?
How Is Alcohol Poisoning Treated
There are a number of methods for treating alcohol poisoning that depend on factors such as the BAC level and how severe the symptoms are.
In some cases, simply monitoring the person might be adequate if they show none of the more serious signs of alcohol poisoning.
When breathing issues are present, a tube can be inserted into the person’s windpipe to mitigate this. Intravenous drips are routinely used since these will keep the person as strong and hydrated as possible. They can also help address issues with blood glucose and vitamin levels. If the person is incontinent due to extreme drunkenness and loss of sensibility, a catheter will be inserted.
When blood alcohol concentration levels are severe, the stomach is pumped. This involved a tube inserted into the mouth or nose then fluids flushed through. When the stomach is flushed, alcohol is more speedily eliminated from the bloodstream and the likelihood of fatal consequences is drastically reduced.
What Are The Consequences of Alcohol Poisoning IF Left Untreated
Alcohol poisoning is a legitimate medical emergency due to the severity of consequences that can unfold if it’s left untreated. Side effects, both short-term and long-term, can be detrimental to health.
Hypothermia and hypoglycemia are both commonly experienced if alcohol poisoning is not treated.
Permanent brain damage can occur and, in the worst scenario, alcohol poisoning can be fatal. Whether through choking on vomit or a worsening of breathing problems and coma.
While our focus today has been on the direct and immediate health risks of alcohol poisoning, there are also other dangers brought about by consuming so much alcohol that shouldn’t be ignored.
The chance of a more general accident or injury is increased, whether through driving under the influence or getting into a fight.
Who Is At Risk From Alcohol Poisoning
Put simply, anyone is at risk of alcohol poisoning if they drink too much in a concentrated period of time.
The more accurate angle to consider this question from is who is more at risk of binge drinking to the extent alcohol poisoning becomes a strong possibility.
College students are especially vulnerable with up to 50% of students estimated to binge drink.
Middle-aged men are also among the most common demographics admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning. 76% of all alcohol poisoning fatalities are male.
Anyone combining alcohol with drugs is also at heightened risk of alcohol poisoning.
Fully 30% of all cases of alcohol poisoning occur in people already dependent on alcohol.
What, then, can be done to reduce this risk? With 2200 deaths in the US each year, anything that can be done to help is worth considering.
How To Avoid Alcohol Poisoning
Since binge drinking is most commonly responsible for alcohol poisoning, the easiest way to reduce the risk is to refrain from consuming too much alcohol in too short a period of time.
While it can be difficult to implement, try drinking water or other non-alcoholic drinks in between each alcoholic drink. This will at least slow down the rate of alcohol entering your bloodstream while giving your liver a little more time to process toxins. As an added advantage, adopting this approach will also cause you to drink less alcohol.
You should not drink on an empty stomach as this will increase the speed at which alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream. Eating before drinking and then continuing to snack if you keep on drinking will lessen the chance of alcohol poisoning to some extent.
If you or someone you know has a tendency to binge drink, being aware of what not to do is just as valuable as being aware of best practice.
By taking the above pointers on board, you could save your own life or that of someone around you without needing any specialist knowledge at all.
Above all, take prompt action if you suspect excessive drinking has veered into the danger zone and never ignore the symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
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