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Signs Of Alcohol Poisoning

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

March 13, 2019

Alcohol poisoning is a severe form of overdose that often accompanies binge-drinking. When this occurs, the alcohol reaches toxic levels within your bloodstream and can impair brain functions and critical life-support systems. As these systems struggle, your heart, temperature, and respiratory rates drop. Severe cases can lead to coma and even death.

Alcohol can be dangerous. Despite this, most of us probably don’t associate a mug of beer or glass of wine with imminent danger. Even with the cultural acceptance and prevalence of alcohol use, drinking is far from harmless. In addition to the health risks also poses alcohol can also impact other areas of your life such as your social life, family relationships, trouble with law, engaging in risky behavior, and put you at a higher risk of sexual assault.  If you plan on drinking in the future or spending time with people who are, this information is very important and could even save a life.

What Is Alcohol?

Alcohol is a drug, and like other drugs, it changes the way your emotional, mental, and physical states function. While some of these changes are pleasurable and even desired, others can become dangerous and life-threatening. Alcohol is the most heavily used addictive drug within our nation. For many people, alcohol can be safe when used responsibly and in moderation. It’s when this drug is misused that it can become extremely dangerous.

When you consume alcohol, your body goes to work detoxifying right away. The moment the alcohol hits your stomach, it and your small intestine begin to transfer it into your bloodstream. From here, the liver begins to metabolize it. This organ can only process a certain amount within a given time. If consumption exceeds this, the remaining alcohol will continue to circulate throughout your body.

The feel-good effects most people seek from alcohol result from the way it influences your brain. Alcohol is a depressant. This means that it impedes the functioning of your central nervous system (CNS). Your CNS rallies crucial life-support functions within your body and brain, including those responsible for your breathing, heart, blood pressure, and temperature rates. If too much alcohol floods your system, these critical processes become compromised. Alcohol abuse creates a range of adverse health effects, including alcohol poisoning which can be deadly.

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol, like any toxin, must be eliminated from your body. As we’ve noted, when consumed in moderate amounts your body is able to process it effectively. If, however, you choose to consume more than your body can realistically handle, the alcohol’s toxins accumulate. This occurs when you drink excessive amounts of alcohol within a short period of time. Binge drinking often leads to this. Not every binge drinking episode results in alcohol poisoning, however, these drinking patterns do increase the risk.

The basic signs of intoxication (slurred speech, stumbling, lack of coordination) signal that a person is at risk. When these occur, it’s a clear sign that a person is already beginning to overdose. They should cease drinking immediately.

Far too many people ignore these cues and, instead, proceed to drink more or to encourage it in another. These signs are no laughing matter, nor should they be ignored. Left untreated, an alcohol overdose can endanger a person’s health and very life.

Alcohol poisoning can be avoided. As cautioned by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “continuing to drink despite clear signs of significant impairments can result in a potentially deadly type of overdose called alcohol poisoning.”

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Is Alcohol Poisoning Considered An Overdose?

To many, overdose might seem like a foreign concept or something which only happens with harder drugs. But the reality is that many of us have experienced or witnessed overdose ourselves. Or, if not, come close to doing so. How can this be?

As explained by NIAAA, “An overdose of alcohol occurs when a person has a blood alcohol content (or BAC) sufficient to produce impairments that increase the risk of harm.” The circumstances we spoke of surrounding alcohol poisoning are just that: an alcohol overdose. Overdose, in any form, is harmful. But alcohol poisoning is one which can become deadly.

Due to alcohol’s legal standing and widespread use, it’s a drug with easy access. Because of these things, people often look the other way when a person is drinking to excess. Many even encourage them. The sad and dangerous truth of these behaviors is that these mindsets and actions could lead to a fatal overdose.

What Are The Signs Of Alcohol Poisoning?

Understanding the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning can help you to enforce preventative and protective measures while drinking. If you notice anyone exhibiting these symptoms you should get them treatment for alcohol poisoning as soon as possible.

As outlined by NIAAA, the body’s temperature may plummet (hypothermia). Signs of this include pale, blueish, and/or clammy skin. Additionally, a person’s breathing may become:

  • Irregular: Eight breaths or less per minute
  • Slow: Ten seconds or more passes between each breath

They may also experience:

  • Confused mental states
  • Slowed or stopped heart rate
  • Stupor
  • Vomiting
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizure
  • Coma

The slowed brain functions which result from alcohol poisoning impair certain responses, including the gag reflex.

A person’s BAC can continue to increase even after they quit drinking. This is because the alcohol within their stomach continues to disperse throughout their bloodstream. As the BAC increases, the risks of alcohol poisoning rise. Should you experience any of the above symptoms in yourself or witness them in someone else, take action. Contact emergency medical services immediately.

What Are The Risks And Dangers Of Alcohol Poisoning?

As your body’s elimination systems are overrun, the lingering alcohol continues to depress your CNS. This effect is so intense, that the areas of your brain which regulate life-support begin to shut down. When this happens, a night of casual drinking can turn deadly, quickly.

If medical help is not summoned, a person may:

  • Aspirate (breathe in and choke on) their vomit
  • Have a blood sugar crash (hypoglycemia)
  • Experience seizures as a result of the hypoglycemia
  • Injure their head during a seizure
  • Go into cardiac arrest from hypothermia
  • Not wake from an unconscious state
  • Slip into a coma

Extreme bouts of vomiting can cause a person to become severely dehydrated. This can induce seizures and lasting brain damage. All of the above dangers can lead to death.

How Do I Handle Alcohol Poisoning?

Do not leave a person alone. And as NIAAA warns, contrary to popular belief, the following actions can actually make the situation worse:

  • Cold showers
  • Hot coffee
  • “Sleeping it off”
  • Walking

Mayo Clinic suggests moving a person into a sitting position. If this isn’t possible, make sure that you gently move the person’s head to the side. This helps to prevent them from choking on or inhaling their vomit. Again, seek medical help immediately. Taking action quickly could save a person’s life.

Get Treatment for Alcohol Abuse Today

While alcohol poisoning doesn’t always mean you have an alcohol addiction, it does result from alcohol abuse. Either way, we have more information to help you learn about the risks of an alcohol use disorder. If you’re suffering from addiction, will work with you to find an individualized treatment program for alcohol. Contact us today.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose

Mayo Clinic - Alcohol Poisoning

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