With alcohol being common, and at times expected, in social situations, it can be easy to engage in risky behaviors. Social and peer pressure may lead you to push your usual limits, but drinking too much in a short period of time can lead to alcohol poisoning.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Ads on TV may lead you to believe that alcohol is an innocuous substance which brightens up every social event, but that scenario applies only to responsible drinkers. Consuming a large amount of alcohol over a short period of time can lead to alcohol poisoning. It is essentially an overdose of a legal drug. The amount depends on factors such as your age, weight, and height, and how recently you have eaten, among others. According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol poisoning can occur “when a male rapidly consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours, or a female downs at least four drinks within two hours.”
Alcohol poisoning often happens when people are binge drinking. This is common in teens and college-age people who are partying or playing drinking games, but binge drinking is not limited to these cases. According to a November 2015 article in Medical News Today, there are approximately 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning reported annually in the United States, which leads to about one death a week as a result. Children who accidentally ingest alcohol are also at risk.
It’s important to remember that alcohol is a depressant. It slows down your breathing, heart rate, and brain functions and can even stop these functions, which could be fatal. It dehydrates you and causes vomiting, which can lead to asphyxiation. Alcohol poisoning also causes hypothermia and damage to the liver and other vital organs. Too much alcohol is toxic.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
It’s important for all of us to recognize the symptoms of alcohol poisoning because it could save the life of a loved one, acquaintance, or a stranger. If you notice any of these symptoms, don’t think, “Oh, they’re just drunk.” Consider this an emergency situation:
- Loss of balance or coordination, stumbling and falling down
- Incoherence in speech or confused thinking
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Clammy, pale, or blue-tinged skin
- Hypothermia (low body temperature)
- A stupor—conscious but unresponsive
Many of us have been drunk at some time in our life, but alcohol poisoning is life threatening. Getting the person help is a top priority, and if this is more than a one-time thing, helping someone get into treatment could save them from the long-term effects of alcohol poisoning. The accumulative effects of too much drinking can lead to liver disease and other serious health issues.
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How to Help Someone with Alcohol Poisoning
If you believe that someone is exhibiting symptoms of alcohol poisoning, it is critical that they have immediate medical attention. Coffee, cold water, induced vomiting, and walking it off will not sober them up or prevent the dangers of alcohol poisoning. Every precious second you waste before getting that person emergency assistance could be life threatening.
Never leave someone you suspect has alcohol poisoning alone to “sleep it off.” They may vomit and aspirate the contents of their stomach, causing them to choke. It’s also important to remember that the blood alcohol content (BAC) continues to rise even after someone has stopped drinking.
Here are some positive measures to save a life if you believe someone is showing signs of alcohol poisoning:
- Call 911.
- Talk to the person calmly and try to keep them awake while waiting for assistance.
- Give them some water if they are able to swallow it to prevent dehydration.
- Cover them with a blanket and keep them warm.
- If the person is passed out, turn them on their side so they don’t aspirate vomit.
Once the person has received emergency medical care for alcohol poisoning, it’s time to address the wider issue of possible alcohol abuse. If this isn’t a one-time thing, and your loved one is drinking on a regular basis, a medically supervised detox program may be the first step in recovery. Your loved one may have co-occurring disorders or need a comprehensive recovery program to support their individual needs. With your help and the assistance of caring professionals, your friend or family member can move forward into a life free of the toxicity of substance abuse.