Drinking is an incredibly popular social activity in the US, with 86.4 percent of individuals ages 18 and older reporting they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, per the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Statistics provided by the same NSDUH survey indicated that 70.1 percent of these individuals reported drinking in the prior year. While the majority of people who drink do so responsibility, alcohol can lead to serious problems for many people. In some cases, people drink to excess and experience alcohol poisoning.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning essentially describes an alcohol overdose. It occurs when people drink too much alcohol within a short period of time. Alcohol poisoning causes a variety of symptoms in both adults and children, such as:
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Pale or bluish skin
What Happens When Alcohol Poisoning Occurs?
When people ingest alcohol, it travels to the stomach, which breaks down about 20 percent of the alcohol and sends it into the bloodstream. Approximately 80 percent of the alcohol enters into the small intestine (duodenum) and is sent to the liver through a large blood vessel. As all the alcohol passes through the liver, it must be metabolized. The liver can only metabolize so much alcohol per hour, and excess alcohol will overwhelm it. Per Brown University, on average, the liver can break down one ounce of alcohol per hour. This rate varies from person to person based on certain factors, such as:
- Size of the liver
- Alcohol tolerance
- Overall health
- Empty, or full stomach
Other factors play a role in how fast alcohol is absorbed and metabolized as well. For instance, the speed of absorption is higher in beverages with higher alcohol concentrations. Carbonated alcoholic beverages, such as champagne or sparkling wine, are absorbed more rapidly by the body.
Once alcohol is absorbed, it has to be processed. Since the liver is only able to process so much at one time, the rest of the alcohol remains in the bloodstream, and essentially, an overdose occurs when there’s a high concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream.
The amount of alcohol in a person’s blood that leads to alcohol poisoning varies from person to person. Gender plays a role, as do a person’s size and body fat percentage. While specifics vary somewhat, the University of Notre Dame reports that alcohol poisoning usually occurs when someone has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.25 percent or higher. People will start to experience dysphoria when their BAC reaches 0.13 percent. At this point, people tend to feel unwell. Nausea usually begins to set in when the individual’s BAC reaches 0.16-0.199 percent. Once BAC gets to 0.02-0.249 percent, the person experiences complete mental confusion and nausea.
It’s important for people to understand that a person can overdose on alcohol before the signs of an overdose are evident. It’s also possible for more alcohol to enter the bloodstream after a person is unconscious. Mixing alcohol with drugs, such as methamphetamine, amphetamine, or cocaine, has the potential to mask symptoms of alcohol toxicity, increasing the likelihood of alcohol poisoning going undetected. Drugs that depress the central nervous system can further enhance the symptoms of alcohol toxicity.
How Common Is Alcohol Poisoning?
According to Medical News Today, there are about 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning reported each year. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that binge drinking and heavy drinking are common occurrences. In fact, in 2015, 26.9 percent of individuals who were 18 or older reported binge drinking in the prior month while 7 percent reported heavy alcohol use over the course of the prior month. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show about 38 million Americans binge drink four times per month on average. Binge drinking at a high intensity tends to be the cause of alcohol poisoning in most cases.
On average, one person dies per week from alcohol poisoning, notes Medical News Today. CNN disclosed statistics from the CDC related to the demographic most affected by death from alcohol poisoning. White males who were between 35 and 64 years old died from alcohol poisoning more frequently than any other demographic from 2010 to 2012. In fact, 76 percent of alcohol-poisoning-related deaths occurred in this demographic. American Indians/Alaska Natives died the most from alcohol poisoning out of every million people, and the state of Alaska had the most alcohol poisoning deaths. The state to have the fewest alcohol poisoning deaths was Alabama. Of all the people who died from alcohol poisoning during this time period, 30 percent suffered from an alcohol use disorder.
When to Get Immediate Help
Whether you, or someone you’re with, have consumed a large quantity of alcohol, it’s vital to seek emergency help immediately. In fact, anyone who is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above should receive emergency medical treatment. It’s better to get help when someone might not be experiencing a serious alcohol overdose than it is to wait.
The person doesn’t need to have all the symptoms to be in need of medical treatment either. Keep in mind, anyone who is unconscious from drinking is at risk of dying, so never assume somebody who has alcohol poisoning will be able to just sleep it off.
You should also never leave someone who has become unconscious as a result of alcohol poisoning alone. Alcohol poisoning suppresses the gag reflex; therefore, when someone vomits from alcohol poisoning, it’s possible for them to choke on the vomit. Never try to induce vomiting when someone has alcohol poisoning for this reason. However, if the person is already vomiting, stay nearby. Help the person to sit up. If the individual must lie down, it’s important to turn their head to the side to reduce the risk of choking.
If possible, try to keep the person awake until help arrives; however, don’t try to stand the individual up and have them walk. Physical activity won’t speed up the process of metabolizing the alcohol, and it puts the person at risk of falling and sustaining an injury. Remedies like cold showers and coffee aren’t effective and can be dangerous. Coffee won’t sober the person up faster; it can, however, make the person feel more sober than they actually are, leading to poor decisions or accidents.
How Is Alcohol Poisoning Treated?
Usually, the symptoms of alcohol poisoning are apparent, but a doctor may order a urine or blood test to determine a person’s blood alcohol level. The physician may order other testing, such as a blood glucose test, to evaluate if any other symptoms of alcohol poisoning are present.
Treatment tends to revolve around carefully monitoring the individual while the body processes the alcohol. Medical staff members will monitor a person’s breathing and prevent the person from experiencing choking problems. The person is also monitored to ensure a seizure doesn’t occur. Supplemental oxygen may be given to those who are having difficulty breathing.
In more severe cases, endotracheal intubation or mask ventilation may be necessary. Intravenous fluids are given to rehydrate the person. Additionally, vitamins and glucose can prevent some of the complications that arise from alcohol toxicity.
Consequences of Alcohol Poisoning
Choking can occur as a result of alcohol poisoning. This becomes more of a concern when a person passes out from alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol decreases a person’s ability to breathe since it’s a depressant. It can also cause irregular or slowed breathing. In some cases, someone suffering from an alcohol overdose will stop breathing altogether. Sometimes, it’s due to the person accidentally inhaling vomit into the lungs, which can be fatal.
Alcohol causes dehydration on its own. When a person is vomiting from alcohol poisoning, dehydration can be severe, potentially leading to dangerously low blood pressure rate and rapid heart rate (tachycardia). Alcohol poisoning may contribute to an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), and in some cases, the heart will stop beating completely. A person’s blood sugar level drops from alcohol poisoning, and it can get low enough to cause a seizure.
An alcohol overdose may cause a person’s body temperature to decrease. Cardiac arrest can occur if the person’s body temperature decreases enough. Brain damage is possible from alcohol poisoning because of a decrease in oxygen reaching the brain. Death from alcohol poisoning can occur due to any of these reasons.
Immediate emergency medical care is imperative because the more serious consequences of alcohol poisoning can be permanent or fatal. They can, however, often be prevented or mitigated with prompt medical assistance.