Many people in the U.S. drink excessively, either too often or too much in one sitting. And because few people understand the limitations of how effectively alcohol can be processed in the body, poisoning can transpire rapidly and without warning.
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include the following:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stupor or unresponsiveness
- Cold, clammy skin
- Impaired coordination
- Irregular heart rate
- Depressed or labored breathing
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Bluish-color skin
Alcohol Poisoning Statistics
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), about 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths occur every year, which is an average of about six per day. This might sound minimal in comparison to deaths related to opioids and other drugs. Still, the concerning thing about these deaths is the amount of alcohol that an individual has to drink to reach this life-threatening point.
In the United States, one standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is equal to 12 ounces of beer (around 5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (approximately 12%), and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40%). A lethal amount of alcohol for an adult is believed to be between 5-8g per kilogram of weight.
Using this math, if an individual who weighs about 60kg (132 pounds) ingests 300g of alcohol, this can lead to death. A person who has consumed 300g of alcohol has drunk at least 21 standard drinks. The standard drink ratio is based on how much alcohol the liver can safely process alcohol in one hour. That is, the liver can effectively process one beer, one glass of wine, or one 1.5 ounce shot of distilled spirits or liquor.
Who Experiences Alcohol Poisoning?
Binge drinking is the primary cause of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is characterized by the consumption of four or more drinks in two hours for females and five or more drinks in the same timeframe for males.
Traditionally, binge drinking has been most commonly associated with college students. Still, in recent years the CDC has discovered that the group who experiences alcohol poisoning most often consists of individuals aged 35-64.
This trend could be related, at least in part, to changes in body chemistry as people age, the presence of prescription drugs that adversely interact with or amplify the effects of alcohol, and differences in drinking preferences between demographics. Also, older adults often have more disposable income to purchase alcohol. For example, according to Smart Asset, the average 20 to 24-year-old makes less than $30,000 per year, while the average individual aged 35-44 earns more than $51,000.
Moreover, Caucasian, middle-aged males are the most likely to suffer from lethal alcohol poisoning when compared to other groups. Of note, 90% of binge drinkers who experience alcohol poisoning are not reported as being alcohol-dependent. This fact could indicate that many of these people have not developed a tolerance and are therefore more susceptible to alcohol’s effects.
Effects of Alcohol Poisoning
Because the liver can only efficiently process about one standard alcoholic drink per hour, if an individual consumes two drinks or more, there will be at least one more additional units in the person’s system that will take a longer time to process.
When someone has drunk way too much alcohol, it accumulates in the bloodstream and quickly begins to impact areas of the brain that manage essential bodily functions, such as breathing and heart rate. Depressed, slow, or labored breathing, profoundly reduced body temperature, and seizures are all potential signs of alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol is almost always ingested as a liquid, so it is somewhat broken down through the digestive system before it reaches the bloodstream and the brain. Oral consumption is one of the slower processes for delivering an intoxicating substance. The result is that the alcohol a person has ingested may not have entirely reached the bloodstream when he or she begins to display symptoms of severe intoxication or alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning will affect the body in the following ways:
- Reducing brain function, staring with balance and coordination and gradually affecting other systems in the body
- Aggravating the gastrointestinal system and inducing nausea and vomiting
- Impairing the gag reflex, which can result in the aspiration or inhalation of vomit
- Interfering with nerves that regulate breathing and heart rate, which can cause these functions to slow down, become irregular, or halt entirely
- Significantly reducing blood sugar, which can result in seizures
- Lowering body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia
- Dehydration, which can cause brain damage and death
How to Help a Person With Alcohol Poisoning
If you suspect a person is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately and stay near the individual to help prevent unintentional self-harm or choking. It is critical to seek emergency medical assistance as soon as possible, even if the person remains conscious. There is probably going to be even more alcohol in the person’s digestive system yet to be processed that will eventually further increase alcohol levels in the bloodstream.
There are many myths associated with a do-it-yourself treatment for alcohol poisoning that many falsely believe will be beneficial, but in fact, may be dangerous. Please DO NOT do any of the following if someone is very intoxicated:
Do not try to get the person to drink coffee. Caffeine is not likely to help an individual who is drunk to become more alert in this condition and may result in further dehydration.
Do not try to get the person to eat, as the gag reflex may be profoundly impaired, and they may be much more likely to choke. For this reason, also do not try to make the individual regurgitate to evacuate alcohol from their system.
Do not, for any reason, try to get the person to “walk it off” because impaired motor coordination can result in falls, injuries, and other accidents.
Do not put the individual in a cold shower (or any shower) because this action may raise the risk of hypothermia.
Do not let them “sleep it off,” since alcohol is probably still being digested and released into their bloodstream, and symptoms could get significantly worse.
When emergency personnel arrives, the person will be taken to an emergency department where he or she will be given medical treatment. Health professionals will monitor the individual until they are confident that alcohol has been cleared from his or her system and that there is no risk of harmful complications.
How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning
As mentioned above, unless you chug high ABV liquor, it’s not easy to fatally overdose on alcohol in and of itself. However, even if the amount of alcohol consumed is not lethal, drinking to a level in which this is even an option is extremely risky and can lead to injury, auto accidents, unsafe sex, physical or sexual assaults, or any number of tragic consequences.
There are several measures that anyone can easily take to avoid alcohol poisoning from occurring, such as the following:
- Drink in moderation and restrict yourself to one standard drink per hour.
- Drink water or other hydrating liquids after or with every alcoholic drink whenever possible.
- Don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach. Food absorbs alcohol, and this means that less alcohol will enter the bloodstream.
- Avoid playing drinking games or situations in which you may be encouraged by others to drink excessively.
- Do not drink alcohol in conjunction with other substances, including prescription medications and illicit drugs.
Get Help After Alcohol Poisoning
If an individual has experienced alcohol poisoning, it does not necessarily mean that an alcohol use disorder is present. However, those who struggle with alcoholism are at an increased risk of alcohol poisoning. Any person who has consumed alcohol at this level should understand and be concerned about the risks involved and strongly consider seeking professional treatment.
Addiction treatment programs, such as those offered by Just Believe Recovery, can help those who need it recover from alcoholism. We employ a comprehensive approach to the treatment of substance abuse and addiction that includes evidence-based services essential for recovery, such as psychotherapy, counseling, peer group support, aftercare planning, and more.
We can help you break the cycle of addiction and reclaim the healthy and satisfying life you deserve! Contact us today to find out how!