Alcohol poisoning occurs when an individual ingests too much alcohol too quickly for the liver to process the substance, and body functions become impaired, or even cease. There are several symptoms of alcohol poisoning, ranging from vomiting and dehydration to passing out, shallow breathing, and falling into a coma. All stages of alcohol poisoning are dangerous and can damage the body, so it is important to get help immediately.
Many adults in the US have experienced “mild” alcohol poisoning in the form of a hangover. Extreme hangovers include headaches, nausea and vomiting, light sensitivity, lack of coordination, diarrhea, memory loss, trembling and shaking, and mood swings. It is important to drink as much water as possible to rehydrate the body and end these effects. However, typically when people discuss alcohol poisoning, they mean a much different set of symptoms that can, in too many tragic cases, prove fatal if untreated.
What Constitutes Alcohol Poisoning?
Blood alcohol content can vary widely for individuals when they suffer from alcohol poisoning, but some evidence suggests that poisoning begins when a person’s BAC reaches 0.2. Disorientation begins at this stage of alcohol consumption, as does vomiting, which can be dangerous if a person is unable to hold their head up or remain conscious. Nerve endings do not send signals to the brain quickly enough to prevent physical damage in many cases, and the gag reflex often stops working, which can cause the person to choke on their own vomit. The chance of choking and causing severe physical damage to oneself from falling increases when the BAC reaches 0.25, and at 0.3, most people fall into a stupor. Often, people with this level of alcohol in their blood will pass out.
A person with a BAC of 0.35 suffers the same effects as surgical anesthesia, including passing out, slowed breathing, and potential cardiac problems. A BAC of between 0.4 and 0.5 often puts people into a coma, and is generally considered a lethal dose of alcohol. Because alcohol releases slowly into the bloodstream and can cause physical effects hours after ingestion, a person can consume a lethal dose well before the worst effects begin. This is why it is very important to get immediate emergency assistance for people who are likely suffering from alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
When a person ingests a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, whether from alcoholic beverages or household products containing high concentrations of alcohol, blood alcohol content spikes and begins to affect major organ systems.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Mental changes, like confusion
- Emotional changes, like intense aggression or depression
- Breathing changes, like irregular breathing, inability to breathe, or slowed breathing
- Other physical changes, like blue-tinged lips, pale skin, and low body temperature
- Becoming suddenly unconscious and unable to wake up
- Heart attack
Other behavioral changes can indicate that a person is suffering alcohol poisoning or will soon. Behavioral changes can accompany changes in brain function as the lack of oxygen begins to shut the brain down. If a person is suspected of suffering alcohol poisoning, even if they do not display all of the listed symptoms, it is important to get them emergency help immediately.
How Does Alcohol Poisoning Happen?
Sometimes, a person – whether an adult or a child – can accidentally suffer alcohol poisoning by ingesting a product with alcohol that is not an alcoholic beverage. Household products like hand sanitizer, mouthwash, and even some cooking products or medications can contain alcohol, which can be very dangerous when ingested. It is important to call 911 as soon as possible if a person has ingested these products.
Many people are concerned about binge drinking as a cause of alcohol poisoning. The definition of binge drinking is five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours for men, and four or more alcoholic drinks within two hours for women. Because alcohol continues to release into a person’s bloodstream even after they have stopped consuming alcohol, it is possible to continue to suffer the effects of binge drinking, or for the symptoms to get worse over the next few hours. It is even possible to consume a fatal dose of alcohol prior to becoming unconscious.
Although many people are aware of the dangers of drinking too much, few understand what a serving size of alcohol is. One serving of beer, for example, is 12 ounces, while a serving of wine is 5 ounces. Hard liquor is usually 1.5 ounces per serving. Cocktails or other mixed drinks likely have more than one serving of alcohol. The liver can generally only process one alcoholic beverage per hour.
What Damage Does Alcohol Poisoning Cause?
If an individual suffers alcohol poisoning, the body may suffer a great deal of damage. This physical damage includes:
- Brain damage from lack of oxygen
- Severe dehydration
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Cardiovascular damage
Individuals who have become addicted to, dependent on, or abuse alcohol are more likely to suffer alcohol poisoning. If a person is taking medications, such as prescriptions to treat insomnia or pain, that clash with alcohol, the person is also more likely to suffer alcohol poisoning. Unfortunately, sometimes children steal alcohol from their parents, so they may unknowingly drink too much and suffer alcohol poisoning as a result.
How to Help a Person Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning
If you believe an individual is suffering from alcohol poisoning, take the following steps:
- Call 911 immediately.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- If the individual is conscious, responsive, and not vomiting, give them a small amount of water to keep them hydrated.
- Keep a vomiting person sitting up, or turn their head to the side.
- Keep the person warm, as hypothermia can cause severe damage to muscles, skin, and nerves.
What NOT to Do
If you find someone suffering from alcohol poisoning, immediate action is necessary. Despite popular myths, there are several things a person should not do, including:
- Let the person “sleep it off.”
- Give the person coffee; this could potentially worsen dehydration.
- Lay the person on their back.
- Let the person leave your presence.
- Help the person “walk it off,” as this can lead to physical harm like falling.
- Put the person in a cold shower. This can worsen blood flow and the effects of hypothermia.
- Allow the person to drink more alcohol.
- Allow fear of consequences prevent calling for professional help.
Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
After receiving emergency care, the person experiencing the overdose will likely be checked into a hospital and receive treatment for a few days to a few weeks. This treatment includes:
- Intravenous drip of saline and/or glucose to prevent dehydration
- Stomach pump to flush out any remaining alcohol so the body will not continue to absorb it
- Intubation to open airways
- Drugs such as fomepizole may be used to stop the body from absorbing any more alcohol for up to 12 hours
- Oxygen therapy might be used to raise the amount of oxygen reaching the individual’s brain
If the individual suffers alcohol poisoning due to consistent abuse of alcohol, a suspected alcohol addiction, alcohol dependence, or drug abuse or addiction mixed with alcohol, then the individual should get comprehensive addiction treatment.