Alcohol Poisoning—Causes, Consequences and Prevention

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is another term for an alcohol overdose, a serious medical crisis that can be lethal. It occurs when the blood level of alcohol is too high to be properly processed by the body. This typically results from drinking heavily in a short amount of time (binge drinking). People who binge drink are especially vulnerable, as are people who have a high tolerance for alcohol. A high tolerance for alcohol means that significant amounts of alcohol can be consumed without feeling the desired effects. Consequently, someone can overdose as they seek intoxication but do not feel intoxicated despite drinking large amounts of alcohol.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that an average of 6 people per day die from alcohol poisoning in the U.S. They also report that alcohol related deaths have exceeded opioids deaths in the U.S. even though there is an epidemic of opioid related fatalities in the country. Their findings indicate alcohol abuse has been a public health problem of its own epidemic proportions for some years and that the rates of overall related problems and alcohol poisoning are continuing to increase.

What Exactly is Binge Drinking?

At the center of the alcohol poisoning problem, and of major public health concern, is binge drinking. Drinking heavily in episodes (binges) is the most common pattern of drinking in the U.S., and anyone who consumes the ‘right’ amount of alcohol within a short period of time is at risk for an alcohol overdose.

A ‘binge’ is defined by the CDC as a pattern of heavy drinking in which an average sized male consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours, or an average sized female rapidly consumes at least four drinks in the same amount of time. Some drinking binges continue for hours or even over the course of several days of heavy drinking.

One drink is:

  • 12 ounces of beer with approximately a 5 percent alcohol content
  • 8-9 ounces of malt liquor with about 7 percent alcohol content
  • 5 ounces of wine that contains about 12 percent alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor which contains about 40 percent alcohol

And, there are other factors that determine the risk of alcohol poisoning during a binge. These are:

  • Body size and weight
  • General overall
  • Stomach contents when drinking
  • Other substances taken with alcohol
  • Usual tolerance for alcohol

Binge drinkers are particularly vulnerable to a variety of personal ‘costs’ when abusing alcohol. In addition to the risk of alcohol poisoning and fatality, binge drinkers are at risk for:

  • Liver disease
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Self-harm
  • Unprotected sex resulting in sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy
  • Alcohol related birth defects
  • High blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Neurological damage

There are other costs of binge drinking that are broader in reach. For example, in 2010, binge drinking was estimated to have cost the U.S. approximately $190 billion dollars in lost work productivity, health care and crime related expenses.

The Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

An alcohol overdose is dangerous because it causes vital bodily functions to slow or stop. This occurs because alcohol is a brain and nervous system depressant which sedates or ‘depresses’ functions necessary for life. Breathing and the gag reflex, for example, can be slowed or stopped in an alcohol overdose. Of course, breathing is essential, as is breathing well enough to fuel the body. Slowed breathing, or sporadic breathing, can reduce oxygen levels severely, causing brain and organ damage due to hypoxia. Stopped breathing is of course life-threatening. And, a slowed or stopped gag reflex can cause choking. Since symptoms of an alcohol overdose include vomiting, there is risk of aspiration–choking on vomit or inhaling it into the lungs. Even when an overdose is survived, there may be irreversible damage due to hypoxia.

Other symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Blue-tinged skin, lips, fingernails
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • ‘Passing out’ or unconsciousness
  • Severe dehydration
  • Irregular heartbeat

An Alcohol Overdose Can Continue After ‘Passing Out

A popular myth is that when someone loses consciousness or ‘passes out’ after drinking is ‘sleeping it off’. However, an alcohol overdose can continue during unconsciousness. The stomach and intestines continue to release alcohol into the system sometime after drinking has stopped. Consequently, someone who has become unconscious can still absorb more alcohol, increasing the risk of a fatal overdose.

What to Do if You Suspect Someone Has Overdosed on Alcohol

Since alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening, it is always wise to err on the side of caution. If you suspect someone has overdosed on alcohol, you should seek immediate emergency help, and:

  • Give detailed information. Report to emergency medical personnel the kind type of alcohol that was consumed, how much and over what period. Also, report any other substance you know was used in similar detail.
  • Stay with the person. If you call for emergency medical help stay with the person and on the phone with the emergency dispatcher. You may have to assist the victim until help arrives and the dispatcher can provide instructions.
  • Assist if the victim is vomiting. Since choking on or inhaling vomit can be fatal, you should assist the victim to sit up if possible, or if lying down, turn their head to the side to prevent this.
  • Try to keep the person awake if possible.

Prevention of Alcohol Poisoning

The primary prevention recommendation is to avoid binge drinking. Alcoholic drinks should never be consumed rapidly. Other preventive measures are:

  • If you do drink, drink moderately. Moderate drinking is considered one drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. However, this is for healthy adults. Many health conditions slow or prevent proper alcohol absorption and the blood level content of alcohol can rise to dangerous levels even when drinking is moderate.
  • Never drink on an empty stomach. Drinking without food in your stomach causes alcohol to be more rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach. Having food in your stomach will slow the absorption of alcohol but will not prevent an alcohol overdose if binge drinking.
  • Protect against accidental alcohol poisoning. Store alcohol safely away from children. Children can overdose on much smaller amounts of alcohol than adults.

If You or a Loved Abuse Alcohol

Alcohol abuse is a significant public health problem and if you or a loved one drink heavily, you are certainly not alone. Many suffer from alcohol-related conditions that can be successfully treated. The often-severe consequences of Alcohol Use Disorders can be successfully resolved and sustained recovery is possible. Countless people have overcome alcohol problems and you or your loved one can, too.

We can help you find the right rehab program if it’s time to tackle the problem. We give free consultations in which we clarify treatment needs and insurance coverage to make the right recommendations for you or your loved one. Effective help is available, and recovery is more than possible with the right help. Give us a call today.