Alcohol poisoning is an overdose of alcohol that occurs when a person drinks so much that the body cannot process it quickly enough. The result is that blood alcohol levels rise to dangerous levels, causing breathing, body temperature, and heart rate to slow. Without emergency care a person suffering from alcohol poisoning can die. Signs include vomiting, confusion, slowed breathing and pulse, unresponsiveness, and loss of consciousness. Emergency treatment can save the life of someone with alcohol poisoning, but only if begun in time.
Alcohol poisoning is a very serious illness that results from excessive drinking. There are no specific definitions for the amount of alcohol, the speed at which it is consumed, or blood alcohol concentration that can determine if a person is suffering from alcohol poisoning. Every person and situation is different, and this is why it is important to know the signs of poisoning and to act on them.
Drinking enough alcohol to trigger this condition can be fatal. It causes the body’s basic functions to slow down and ultimately stop. While only time can allow the body to process the alcohol and recover from the overdose, someone who is suffering from alcohol poisoning can benefit from emergency medical care with life support and other measures. It is essential that anyone who suspects someone has this condition does not hesitate to call for emergency help. It may save a life.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is an overdose of alcohol. Just as a person can take too much of a drug and overdose, drinking excessively is also possible. Alcohol is a toxin in the body, and alcohol poisoning results from drinking too much, too fast. It can be treated if treatment begins early enough, but alcohol poisoning is also often fatal.
The amount of drinking that leads to alcohol poisoning varies, but what happens when a person drinks too much is the same no matter how much was consumed. A toxic amount of alcohol causes the parts of the brain responsible for basic life support to shut down. This results in lowered breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. If not reversed, these functions will slow to a stop, leading to death.
There are other ways that alcohol poisoning can be fatal. Excess alcohol inhibits the gag reflex, so someone who has drunk excessively is at risk of vomiting and choking. Drinking too much can also cause severe dehydration, which may trigger seizures and brain damage and be fatal.
Facts About Alcohol Poisoning
- An average of six people per day in the U.S. dies from alcohol poisoning.
- Most deaths caused by alcohol poisoning occur in people between the ages of 35 and 64.
- More than 75 percent of people who die from alcohol poisoning are men.
- About 30 percent of the cases of deaths from alcohol poisoning were people who were alcoholics.
- Sixty-eight percent of people who die from alcohol poisoning are non-Hispanic and white.
Approximately half of people whose blood alcohol concentration (BAC) gets up to 0.40 will ultimately die from alcohol poisoning.
How Alcohol Is Processed in the Body
Ethanol is the chemical substance common to all types of alcohol. It is what causes a person to become intoxicated, and it has to be processed and metabolized by the body. When someone consumes more than the body can process, the result is intoxication. In extreme cases, when the body can’t keep up with consumption, alcohol poisoning can result.
Ethanol is actually a toxin in the body, and it is largely broken down and processed in the liver. The stomach and intestines, the pancreas, and the brain also play small roles in this process. In the liver, enzymes turn ethanol into another substance called acetaldehyde. This is then further broken down into water and carbon dioxide, small substances that can be eliminated from the body.
How much and how quickly the body can process ethanol depends on a number of factors. Women generally process it more slowly, because they have fewer of the needed enzymes. They also have more body fat than men, and fat does not absorb alcohol from the bloodstream. Other factors that impact the metabolism of ethanol include genetics, body mass, amount of food eaten before drinking, and overall health. Those people who can process it faster and more efficiently are less likely to risk having alcohol poisoning when drinking the same quantity of alcohol.
How Much Alcohol Is Toxic
The amount of alcohol that triggers life-threatening alcohol poisoning varies by individual and situation. Poisoning is related to how fast the body can keep up with processing of alcohol, so the factors that help process alcohol more efficiently and quickly reduce the risk: being male, having a greater body mass, having eaten, and being in good health. These are not factors that will prevent alcohol poisoning, but they may mean an individual has to drink more than someone else to reach that state.
Intoxication can be measured by blood alcohol concentration, or BAC. It measures how much alcohol is in the bloodstream. The higher the number, the greater the alcohol in the blood, and the more likely someone is to suffer from alcohol poisoning. There is no set BAC number that defines alcohol poisoning, but anything over 0.31 is life-threatening.
Binge Drinking and Alcohol Poisoning
Binge drinking is a big risk factor for alcohol poisoning and a risky behavior that can quickly get out of control and become dangerous. It is defined as drinking enough in a period of time to raise BAC to 0.08, the legal limit for being able to drive. The amount of alcohol it takes to get to this point varies due to multiple factors. However, in general, binge drinking is considered to be five or more drinks in two hours for men or four or more drinks in two hours for women.
Many people exhibit this pattern of drinking without developing alcohol poisoning, but binge drinking is very risky. It can lead to fatal alcohol poisoning, and it is possible to drink a fatal amount before losing consciousness. In addition to the risk of alcohol poisoning, binge drinking is dangerous because it can lead to accidents, organ damage, being a victim of violence, unwanted pregnancies, and other types of harm.
Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is very serious and can be fatal, so it is important to be aware of the symptoms. These symptoms in anyone who has been drinking heavily should be taken seriously. Call for emergency medical help if these signs are present:
- Slowed breathing
- Irregular breathing
- Hypothermia, or low body temperature
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Loss of consciousness
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Treating Alcohol Poisoning
Quick medical treatment of alcohol poisoning is essential to save someone’s life. Emergency care for someone suffering from alcohol poisoning focuses on making sure they are breathing and that the heart is still pumping. This usually involves careful monitoring and, if necessary, intervening with life support measures to keep respiration and blood circulation going. Keeping the airway clear is also important.
A patient with alcohol poisoning may be given intravenous fluids, because alcohol dehydrates the body and that can become severe and dangerous. In some cases an individual may benefit from medications, glucose, vitamins or oxygen therapy. Pumping the stomach is almost never needed unless it is clear that the person recently consumed a large amount of alcohol that may still be in the stomach.
It is important to understand that there is no home remedy for treating alcohol poisoning. Time is the only factor that can allow the body to continue to process the ethanol and eliminate it from the body. While that happens, life support may be needed, and that can only be provided by medical professionals.
Alcohol poisoning may be a one-time incident, but it can also be a sign that someone is struggling with an alcohol use disorder. If you or someone you care about is having a hard time moderating drinking and is engaging in risky behaviors like binge drinking, professional addiction treatment can help. Therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, support, and other measures led by addiction specialists can help individuals learn to stop or moderate drinking and avoid dangerous behaviors.