Drinking Responsibly: The Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
Would you know what to watch for if someone close to you had alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning (or alcohol overdose) occurs when someone consumes a lethal level of alcohol, typically after binge drinking. One of the biggest myths about alcohol poisoning is that it only affects college students and underage drinkers. Although these groups are more likely to consume larger quantities of alcohol in a shorter amount of time, death by alcohol poisoning is most common in middle-aged adults between the ages of 35 and 64.
According to the CDC, today in the United States 6 people will die from alcohol poisoning. That translates out to an average of over 2,220 people per year, one of the highest causes of preventable death. But alcohol poisoning doesn’t have to be fatal if you know how to respond.
Cases of alcohol poisoning require careful observation of the drinker to determine if they’ve overdosed. A few of the symptoms are the same as typical intoxicated behavior like confusion and vomiting. However, a person with alcohol poisoning will also exhibit other far more serious ailments such as unresponsiveness, difficulty remaining conscious, or total unconsciousness. Other signs include seizures, irregular heart rate, abnormal breathing (gasping for air, erratic or slow breaths, etc.), and discolored skin.
Alcohol poisoning is an emergency situation. Another myth surrounding an overdose is that someone will be fine if they “sleep it off.” In actuality, alcohol poisoning can worsen during sleep and unconsciousness because blood alcohol content will continue to rise throughout the body. At the same time, alcohol’s effects can alter the usual, automatic tasks the body normally performs that can result in choking, loss of breath, irregular heartbeats, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and severe dehydration, all of which can lead to death. Even if someone survives alcohol poisoning, their brain can be damaged so severely that it will impact them for the rest of their life.
Because of the seriousness of these hazards, always lean towards the side of caution if someone shows any signs of alcohol poisoning. And do not be embarrassed for calling 911. Even though it can be hard for everyone involved to admit that someone has had too much to drink, it is better to be safe than sorry when someone’s life is at risk. Also, never assume that they’ll feel better once they’ve sobered or woken up because there’s a chance they won’t gain consciousness again.
In the meantime, while waiting for an ambulance or driving someone to the hospital, there are few ways to take care of someone who has alcohol poisoning. Most importantly, do not leave them alone for any reason. This will increase the chance of asphyxia from choking. If the person is vomiting, try to keep them sitting up, and if they’re laying down, make sure they’re on their side. Both of these will prevent choking. Also, try to keep them awake from losing consciousness.
The most important guideline to follow in cases of alcohol poisoning is to remain calm and reach out for medical assistance. By following these steps, someone’s life can be spared.
For more details on alcohol poisoning and what to do if someone is suffering from it, visit these sources:
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, “Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much,” April 2015
Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Alcohol Poisoning,” January 2015
MayoClinic, “Alcohol Poisoning” December 5 2014
University of Texas at Austin (University Health Services), “Alcohol Overdose: What Should You Do”