What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a severe form of alcohol overdose that occurs when a person consumes too large an amount of alcohol over a short period of time, as is common with binge drinking. When this happens, a night of casual drinking could quickly turn deadly.

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage, coma, and death. Chronic drinking over time can also cause multiple organ failure and other serious medical problems. For these reasons, people with alcohol poisoning should receive immediate medical care.

In certain cases, alcohol poisoning may be a sign of a larger problem. Individuals who routinely engage in heavy or binge drinking may struggle with an alcohol use disorder or addiction.

Comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment could help a person find sobriety. It may also protect them from alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-related health risks.

Understanding Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol is the most frequently abused drug in America. Despite its widespread social acceptance, alcohol abuse can cause great bodily injury and harm, including alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning is the most dangerous form of alcohol overdose. When alcohol poisoning sets in, alcohol, which is also referred to as ethanol, has reached toxic levels in the body. Because of this, alcohol poisoning is also called ethanol poisoning.

About six people die each day in America from alcohol poisoning, according to the most recent estimates available from the CDC.

When alcohol is consumed in moderation, the body is typically able to eliminate it in a safe and timely manner. When a person consumes more than their body can process, the alcohol can continue to circulate in the body, causing an increased blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

At a high enough BAC, an alcohol overdose can set in. In the early stages, a person may seem highly intoxicated or drunk, but as alcohol overdose progresses, the brain and critical life-support systems can become highly impaired. Alcohol poisoning can cause these systems to shut down, leading to death.

The exact amount needed to cause alcohol poisoning can vary per person. Consuming any type of alcoholic beverage can lead to alcohol overdose, including:

  • beer
  • gin
  • tequila
  • vodka
  • wine
  • whiskey

When a person binge drinks or consumes a large enough quantity of alcohol to bring their blood alcohol concentration to .08 percent or higher, they face a higher risk of alcohol poisoning.

For a woman, this generally occurs after four drinks, and for a man after five drinks. This is typically over a period of two hours. Teens and college-aged individuals may face a higher risk of alcohol poisoning, due to increased behaviors of binge drinking.

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Alcohol Poisoning Causes

Anyone who drinks a large quantity of alcohol quickly may be in danger of an alcohol overdose. However, certain factors can influence a person’s risk for alcohol poisoning, such as their:

  • age
  • gender
  • weight and size
  • state of health
  • tolerance to alcohol

If a person has recently eaten, their risk can also change. A person’s health and medical conditions, including any medications they may take, can also influence this risk.

If a person is taking other drugs that depress the CNS, such as opioids, sedative-hypnotics, and anti-anxiety medications, they may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. This is true when these drugs are taken as prescribed or consumed in patterns of abuse.

Consuming alcohol with heroin, prescription painkillers, benzodiazepines, and sleep aids such as zolpidem (Ambien) can place a person at a greater risk of alcohol poisoning.

The amount or percentage of alcohol in a person’s drink can also influence their risk. Many of today’s beers contain more than one standard drink’s worth of alcohol.

Even more, many mixed drinks at bars and restaurants also contain more than this amount. If a person consumes these or other strong drinks, they may not realize they are binge drinking or consuming too much alcohol too quickly.

A standard drink contains .6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. This equals:

  • 12 fl oz of regular beer that is about 5 percent alcohol
  • 8 to 9 fl oz of malt liquor that is about 7 percent alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine that is about 12 percent alcohol
  • a 1.5 fl oz shot of 80-proof distilled spirits, such as gin, rum, tequila, vodka, or whiskey

Monitoring alcohol intake or abstaining from alcoholic drinks can prevent alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol Poisoning Risks And Dangers

A person’s blood alcohol concentration can continue to rise after they’ve stopped drinking or even after they’ve passed out. This is because any alcohol that remains in their stomach or intestines can make its way to the bloodstream. The greater a person’s BAC, the greater the risk of alcohol poisoning.

As a person’s blood alcohol concentration increases, their central nervous system can become depressed. The CNS is responsible for keeping crucial life support systems functioning.

When alcohol overdose causes the CNS to be depressed, areas of the brain that regulate a person’s blood pressure, breathing, heart, and temperature could become impaired. Alcohol poisoning can cause these vital systems to start shutting down.

Sleeping it off can be very dangerous for a person who is struggling to stay awake or who is already unconscious due to alcohol poisoning. In these states, they could breathe in and choke on (aspirate) their vomit.

Additionally, without prompt medical help, a person may:

  • experience a blood sugar crash (hypoglycemia)
  • have seizures from hypoglycemia
  • become severely dehydrated from vomiting
  • go into cardiac arrest from hypothermia
  • slip into a coma
  • develop brain damage
  • According to Mayo Clinic, any of these conditions can be fatal.

Alcohol Poisoning Signs And Symptoms

When a person begins to show signs of alcohol intoxication, such as a lack of coordination and slurred speech, they’re already at risk of alcohol overdose. If they ignore these signs and continue to drink, an overdose could progress to fatal alcohol poisoning.

As alcohol reaches toxic levels, and as a person’s body struggles to detoxify itself, signs of alcohol overdose will likely become apparent.

When alcohol poisoning causes the central nervous system to slow to life-threatening levels, the body’s temperature may plummet, a state referred to as hypothermia. This can cause cold, clammy skin that appears pale or bluish in color.

At this time, a person’s heart and breathing rates may slow. Major signs of alcohol poisoning include when a person’s breathing slows to eight breaths or less per minute or becomes irregular, to the point where there are 10 or more seconds between each breath they take.

Additional signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • confusion
  • intestinal and stomach bleeding
  • no gag reflex
  • slurred speech
  • seizures
  • stomach pain
  • slowed responses
  • stupor
  • unconsciousness
  • unsteadiness
  • vomiting (may be bloody)

Knowing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning could help a person get themselves or someone close to medical care.

Passing the signs of alcohol poisoning off as only intoxication or drunkenness could endanger a person’s life. In this state, it can be very dangerous to wait for a person to develop all the signs of alcohol poisoning.

Even if a person doesn’t have all or any of these symptoms, if alcohol poisoning is suspected, emergency medical services should be contacted.

Alcohol poisoning can be a medical emergency. If a person has consumed a fatal amount of alcohol, emergency medical care could save their life at this time.

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Alcohol Poisoning Treatment

An individual who is believed to be overdosing on alcohol should not be left alone. If a person is fully unconscious, or even semi-conscious and having a hard time staying awake, emergency medical treatments may be required. If a person cannot be woken up, they are at risk of losing their life.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the remedies people try at home at this time don’t reverse alcohol poisoning. Instead, they may make the situation worse, including:

  • cold showers
  • hot coffee
  • walking

Semi-conscious and unconscious individuals should not be left to “sleep it off.” If at all possible, a person should be kept awake at this time, so that they don’t lose consciousness.

Someone should stay with a person at all times to make sure they don’t fall or choke. A person should be moved to a sitting position, so they’re somewhat leaning forward. If they are unconscious or will not sit up, they should be rolled to one side so they don’t choke.

Unless directed to do so by a healthcare professional or Poison Control, do not attempt to make a person vomit.

Certain information can help first responders provide more effective treatment at this time, including:

  • a person’s age and weight
  • what they drank
  • how much they drank
  • when it was consumed
  • if they took any other drugs recreationally
  • if they take any medications or have health problems

Once a person arrives at the emergency room, they will be closely monitored and lab work will be done. Medical treatments will likely be administered, including, but not limited to, airway support, IV fluids, medications, and certain tests.

Finding Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

While experiencing alcohol poisoning doesn’t necessarily mean a person is addicted to alcohol, it does mean they’ve abused alcohol. In certain cases, patterns of alcohol abuse can accelerate to addiction. If a person is addicted, comprehensive treatment for alcoholism is available.

The most effective programs for alcohol addiction often blend medications with behavioral therapies, an approach is known as medication-assisted treatment.

Alcohol dependence can cause severe withdrawal. For this reason, a medical detox program that uses medications may be required to help a person safely withdrawal. Once a person has detoxed, they should proceed to rehab for the best chance of a successful recovery.

Though outpatient and inpatient rehab programs for alcohol addiction are available, a residential alcohol treatment program is often preferable for moderate to severe alcohol addiction.

Contact Addiction Campuses now for more information on alcohol poisoning and alcohol addiction treatment.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/alcohol-poisoning-deaths/index.html

Mayo Clinic - https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386

MedlinePlus - https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002644.htm

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism - https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-dangers-of-alcohol-overdose

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