What are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

Despite its legality and widespread social acceptance, alcohol is a potentially dangerous substance. Consumed in excess, alcohol can impair judgment, coordination, and cause billions of dollars in economic and healthcare-related damages. Unfortunately, emergency room visits related to alcohol abuse have jumped by 50% since 2006. The number of people transported to the hospital for alcohol-related injuries and medical emergencies has gone from 3 million to over 5 million per year. The detrimental effects of binge drinking and chronic alcohol consumption place a considerable burden on the healthcare system.

While teenagers and young adults used to be the most at-risk for alcohol poisoning and related medical emergencies, middle-aged adults are now most at-risk for the toxic and dangerous effects of alcohol poisoning. The following post will explain the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning and how to help someone before it’s too late.

Alcohol Poisoning

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning happens when someone drinks too much alcohol too quickly, and their body is unable to process and eliminate it.  Alcohol poisoning is deadly if left untreated. It doesn’t matter how old a person is, how much they weigh, if they are male or female, or what type of drink they’ve consumed. Anyone is at risk of deadly alcohol poisoning if they raise their BAC levels too high too quickly.

When someone begins drinking, their BAC levels will start to rise. Eventually, they will reach a point where their BAC level is high enough that mental, physical, and emotional systems are severely impaired. Even if someone stops drinking at this point, BAC levels can continue to rise to dangerous levels. BAC levels can increase for up to 40 minutes after a person has their last drink. A person is legally intoxicated at a BAC level of .08. Alcohol poisoning sets in at a BAC level of .25.

Who is most at-risk for alcohol poisoning?

Recent studies from the CDC indicate that binge drinking is the most significant risk factor for experiencing life-threatening alcohol poisoning. However, most binge drinkers do not meet the criteria for alcohol dependence. The following demographics are most at-risk for alcohol poisoning:

  • Most people who die from alcohol poisoning are between the ages of 35 and 64.
  • Men are more likely to engage in binge drinking habits, and therefore die from alcohol poisoning, than women.
  • Non-Hispanic whites make up the majority of alcohol poisoning deaths.
  • Alaskan Natives and American Indians have the most alcohol poisoning related deaths per million people of any ethnicity or race.
  • Alaska has the most alcohol poisoning related deaths, and Alabama has the least.
  • Alcoholism was identified as a significant factor in 30% of studied alcohol poisoning deaths.

Binge drinking habits put people the most at-risk for alcohol poisoning. For women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in a short period. For men, it is defined as consuming five or more drinks quickly, causing BAC levels to rise above .08. In the U.S., binge drinkers consume an average of 8 drinks in a binge drinking session.

How can someone avoid alcohol poisoning?

The most effective way to avoid the risk of alcohol poisoning is not to consume a lot of alcohol in a short period. For women, they should limit themselves to one or two drinks within two hours to keep BAC levels under .08. For men, between two and three drinks during the same period of time will keep BAC levels at a safe and legal level, while still enjoying the pleasant effects of alcohol.

Why is alcohol poisoning so dangerous?

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it suppresses involuntary bodily functions such as breathing and the gag reflex. Excessive consumption of alcohol can inhibit these processes. Also, excessive alcohol consumption can make someone vomit. When people drink to the point of poisoning, their breathing can stop, they can lose consciousness, vomit, and choke on their own vomit. Because BAC levels continue to rise for up to 40 minutes after someone stops drinking, it is dangerous to assume that it is safe for a heavily intoxicated person to sleep off the effects of alcohol. The most dangerous effects of alcohol poisoning are:

  • Hypothermia
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Irregular or suppressed breathing
  • Brain damage
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Asphyxiation
  • Coma
  • Death

What are the signs of alcohol poisoning?

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, watch out for the following signs and seek immediate medical attention:

  • Severe confusion, stupor, coma, or the person can otherwise not be roused from sleep
  • Vomiting
  • Slowed breathing, less than eight breaths per minute
  • Irregular breathing, or ten seconds between breaths
  • Blue or pale skin, lips, fingernails or toenails
  • Hypothermia or low body temperature

What should you do if you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning?

It’s vital that you know the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning. It’s also unwise to wait until all symptoms are present before seeking treatment. A failure to seek treatment can lead to asphyxiation, coma, and death. Also, don’t assume that it is safe for a severely intoxicated person to ‘sleep it off.’ A person who is passed out is at significant risk of dying in their sleep from asphyxiation, lack of oxygen, or hypothermia.

If the person is still awake, remain calm and do not ridicule them or become angry. Alcohol consumption can make someone irrational and aggressive. Do not try to give them any food or anything else to drink. Coffee, food, and cold showers can make alcohol poisoning worse. Call for an ambulance. Keep the person comfortable while you wait for help to arrive.

If a person who you suspect has alcohol poisoning is unconscious, turn them over on their side to prevent them from choking. Call 911, and be prepared to administer CPR. Do not leave them alone while you wait for emergency personnel to arrive.

Binge drinking and long-term alcohol abuse can lead to serious health consequences, irreversible damage, and death in the worst case scenario. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol dependence, please do not hesitate to speak to a qualified rehab specialist and get the help you need.

The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.

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