Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that has the potential, in many cases, to be life-threatening. An alcohol overdose is defined by the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) as the increase of BAC (blood level concentration) to a level that increases the risk of harm due to alcohol-related impairments. It can occur when a person consumes excessive alcohol during a time period that is not long enough to metabolize it properly. Without treatment, organs will begin to fail, and the person may die.
Alcohol poisoning is among the many risks associated with excessive drinking, binge drinking in particular. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there are approximately 2,200 fatalities due to alcohol poisoning every year in the U.S., which equates to an average of six deaths each day. Also, those that do recover may continue to experience chronic complications, such as brain damage.
Of these fatalities, more than three-quarters of the victims (76%) were between the ages of 35-64. What’s more, alcohol use disorder is a factor in almost one-third (30%) of all deaths. Although it can happen to an alcoholic, alcohol poisoning is most often the result of a binge-pattern of drinking, which is defined as 4-5 drinks per episode for women and men, respectively. The CDC also states that adults reported an average of eight drinks per session during these binge episodes.
What Are the Signs of Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is considered to be a medical emergency. If a person exhibits symptoms of alcohol poisoning, please call 911 immediately or visit the nearest emergency department.
The most common signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include the following:
- Impaired coordination
- Stumbling or falling
- Labored or slowed breathing
- Blue-tinged skin
- Hypothermia (low body temperature)
- Passing out
How the Body Processes Alcohol
The liver is a regenerative and resilient organ, but it can only process about one standard serving of alcohol each hour. Typical serving sizes include 12 ounces of beer (5%), 5 ounces of wine (12%), and 1.5 ounces of spirits (80 proof).
Consuming one serving of alcohol each hour will eventually increase a person’s BAC, but generally not to the extent of significant impairment. Drinking above this amount can increase a BAC to .08%, which is commonly considered a level of impairment, and driving a motor vehicle or operating other machinery is illegal.
A BAC of .08% or higher will likely yield significant cognitive and motor impairments. A BAC over .30 can be life-threatening among those who do not have adequate tolerance for alcohol. A BAC of .4% or higher is believed to be a fatal amount for about half of all humans. In some instances, people have sustained BAC levels at .50% and above, but only those with extremely high tolerance are likely to survive.
Depending on individual factors, such as sex, age, weight, and overall health, alcohol poisoning can occur at lower levels of consumption. For example, a male who weighs 160 pounds may experience alcohol poisoning after drinking around 15 shots of liquor in under four hours. In contrast, a female who weighs 120 pounds will experience the same effects after just nine shots in roughly the same time period.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
Using specific tests, such as a breathalyzer or blood samples, can only identify alcohol in a person’s system for up to 24 hours. However, saliva and urine tests can detect the presence of alcohol for as many as five days. Though rarely used, hair tests can identify alcohol consumption up to 90 days after the last use.
The body metabolizes alcohol for elimination by using multiple processes, including two enzymes known as ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase) and ALDH (aldehyde dehydrogenase). ADH produces a toxic metabolite known as acetaldehyde, which is then broken down to the byproduct acetate. This product is further metabolized to carbon dioxide and water for elimination.
If the time period is too short for the liver to do its job, excessive alcohol use results in alcohol entering the bloodstream, even after drinking has stopped. Binging on alcohol leads to an increase in BAC for up to 40 minutes after the last drink, as the liver is still attempting to process alcohol already consumed.
If a person is suffering from alcohol poisoning, any alcohol they drank will remain in the body for several hours and will continue to harm the brain and vital organs. This means that emergency medical attention is absolutely critical.
How to Help a Person Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning
It is crucial to remember that a person suffering from alcohol poisoning may not simply sleep it off. Symptoms will likely worsen, and they are at high risk for choking and vomit inhalation, profound respiratory depression/arrest, seizures, coma, and death.
If you are tasked with caring for an individual who is experiencing alcohol poisoning, and you are waiting for emergency medical personnel to arrive, you can help him or her in the following ways:
- Try to keep the person awake if he or she is conscious.
- Try to keep a conscious person in an upright position.
- Encourage him or her to drink water to prevent worsening dehydration.
- Do not let him or her consume more alcohol or other drugs.
- Position unconscious persons in the recovery position.
- Stay close to him or her until help arrives.
Actions That DO NOT HELP a Person Who Has Alcohol Poisoning
Common myths and misunderstandings about helping a person get sober include the following:
Drinking coffee—Doing this can contribute to worsening dehydration.
Sleeping it off—People who are suffering from alcohol poisoning may go to sleep and never wake up.
Walking it off—Forcing a person to walk increases the risk of falls and injuries.
Exercising it off—This can actually cause the BAC to increase for those experiencing alcohol poisoning.
Taking a cold shower—Alcohol poisoning can lead to perilously low body temperature (hypothermia), and cold water can amplify this effect and result in shock.
Taking medication—Do not give the person anything other than water. Medications and drugs can adversely interact with alcohol and lead to choking, vomiting, and exacerbation of poisoning and intoxication.
Experiencing alcohol poisoning is often a hallmark sign that treatment for alcohol abuse is needed. Problematic drinking includes binge drinking, daily drinking, and any level of drinking that adversely impacts one’s health, family and social interactions, legal or financial status, and overall quality of life.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers employ caring, highly-skilled addiction specialists and other healthcare personnel trained to design customized programs that treat addiction and withdrawal symptoms.
Treatment typically begins with detox, a medically-assisted process in which the person is supervised 24 hours a day for 5-8 days to ensure that life-threatening complications, including seizures, do not occur and that symptoms of withdrawal are adequately managed. Certain medications may be administered to ensure the patient does not suffer from severe, life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
In general, long-term rehab is highly encouraged, including behavioral therapy, individual and group therapy, counseling, group support, mindfulness therapy, and ongoing aftercare. Ideally, individuals should consider intensive treatment for at least 30 days in an inpatient or partial hospitalization program.
If you or your loved one is suffering from alcohol addiction or other forms of substance abuse, please contact us and find out how we can help!