Basics

What is Alcohol Poisoning?


Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency most typically caused by the consumption of too many alcoholic beverages in too short a period of time. It is one of the principal risks of binge drinking, which is five drinks or more within two hours for men and at least four drinks within two hours for women. Since our bodies can only process one standard drink per hour, alcohol poisoning reflects a dangerous overload of our waste organs, like the liver. Blood alcohol concentration rapidly increases and the consequences can be dire.

At-Risk Behaviors for Alcohol Poisoning

Underage and newly of-age drinkers have a well-established tendency toward binge drinking. For these kids, alcohol performs its longstanding role as a social lubricant, a way to loosen up and deal with anxiety. Many believe chugging from a beer bong or playing drinking games is simply a good time. On average, binge drinkers consume 8 drinks per binge. Consider a typical college football fan’s “tailgating” scenario, in which round follows round: before, during, and after the game. At that rate, it’s easy to see how 5-8 drinks within each two hour block is easily surpassed, in and around the game.

But while the body absorbs alcohol rapidly, it removes alcohol relatively slowly. So the more you drink in a shorter period of time, the more difficult it becomes for the liver to metabolize, or process, the alcohol in your system.

After 4-5 drinks (and sometimes fewer, depending upon the size and weight of the drinker, and the alcohol level in the beverage itself), blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is higher than the national legal limit of 0.08 g/dL (grams per deciliter). This is when you are legally drunk. Depending on your tolerance level, alcohol poisoning may not yet be in evidence at that point, yet brain and liver damage are underway. This is especially tragic for younger drinkers, as the human brain is still developing well into our 20s. Alcohol abuse permanently compromises memory and learning ability.

Once you hit a BAC of 0.15  g/dL, physical control is compromised and blackouts may occur. It’s important to note that even after blacking out, a binge drinker’s BAC continues to rise as the alcohol consumed is metabolized. 0.30 g/dL renders some unconscious, and 0.40 g/dL leads to coma and perhaps even death. (For more about how this occurs, see below.)

Given the stereotype of the youthful binge drinker discussed above, it’s worth noting that most victims of lethal alcohol poisoning are men, aged 35-64. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,200 deaths from alcohol poisoning occur each year in the U.S. Some of these tragedies are not from the binge drinking of alcoholic beverages, but from children who are unwittingly poisoned by drinking common household items which have alcohol in their ingredients list, for example cologne or mouthwash. Take precautions to keep such items out of reach of small children.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

A high BAC compromises areas of the brain which control our life-support functions. These include heart rate, temperature control, and breathing. As these shut down, symptoms demonstrated include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Trouble breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Lack of gag reflex
  • Low body temperature

Cold Showers and Coffee Don’t Work

There are several potentially dangerous myths about “sobering up” an intoxicated individual.

Coffee and caffeine have no effect upon the concentration of alcohol in the blood. A cold shower could put someone suffering from alcohol poisoning into shock due to the difficulty of regulating temperature already present, rendering them unconscious. Even the plate of greasy food some drunks crave only further taxes their beleaguered liver. The presence of food is required to absorb alcohol before imbibing, not after. Eating junk food while intoxicated could contribute to vomiting while passed out.

We’ve all heard of rock stars like AC/DC singer Bon Scott or Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham choking on their own vomit while unconscious from an alcoholic binge. Each of these men were left to “sleep it off,” and likely perished due to the lack of gag reflex common with high BAC. Rather than being left alone after their binge, they should have been given medical attention.

More recently, singer Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning after a lonely vodka binge in her home. Her BAC was a shocking 0.40 g/dL; the binge followed a period of abstinence, which compromised Winehouse’s tolerance.

If you see signs of alcohol poisoning in others or experience symptoms personally, seek medical help immediately. If you feel your drinking or that of a loved one is increasingly health-threatening, please call Beauterre Recovery Institute or use the contact form below.

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