Did you know that 2200 people die each year from acute alcohol poisoning? Compared to heroin and other illicit drugs, this number is relatively low. However, what is so frightening is the amount of alcohol one must consume to overdose fatally. According to some research, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.250-0.399% is considered to be alcohol poisoning, and unconsciousness can be expected. At .40%, there is the potential for coma and death to occur.
However, a study from 1990 that analyzed 175 fatal cases of alcohol poisoning, the mean BAC of the decedents was .355%. Researchers noted that this number was “less than that quoted in many standard textbooks on forensic medicine.” But in general, .40% is the figure that is widely considered to be lethal.
Another study from 2012 found that of 1191 emergency department patients who had BAC testing performed, a small number (37) had a BAC greater than the allegedly fatal level of .40%. This number included three patients above .50%. Of note, no deaths or transfers to the ICU were recorded for anyone in this group, indicating that some people can survive a BAC higher than what is generally considered to be lethal.
Interestingly, the highest BAC ever recorded was of a Polish man who was involved in a car accident—his BAC was found to be at 1.48%. Doctors stated he somehow managed to survive this level of intoxication, but, unfortunately, he later succumbed to injuries related tot he crash.
In another report, in 2004, a Bulgarian man was taken to the hospital following a car accident in which he sustained minor injuries. According to reports, the man had a BAC of .914% yet appeared “fine” and had communicated coherently with others.
Indeed, there have been more reports of individuals who survived remarkably high blood alcohol levels that would have killed most others. And still, according to the aforementioned 1990 study, a significant amount of fatalities have occurred in the .30% range. This wide range of possibilities is because, in addition to the amount of alcohol consumed, other factors may influence the outcome of a person who drank excessively.
Factors That Influence BAC
How Rapidly Alcohol Is Consumed
The faster a person drinks alcohol, the faster their peak BAC will increase, and the more rapidly he or she will become intoxicated. The liver is able to metabolize alcohol at a rate of around one standard drink per hour (see below). When more than one drink is consumed in an hour, the liver is unable to keep up, and more alcohol will circulate in the blood until the liver can get up to speed.
One tragic example of this occurring was at midnight on November 4, 1998, when Bradley McCue went to a bar in East Lansing, Michigan, with a group of friends to celebrate his 21st birthday. While there, he reportedly consumed 24 shots of liquor in around 1.5 hours. He made it home alive, but as his BAC continued to increase steadily, he died shortly thereafter at approximately 4:30 a.m. with a BAC level of .440%.
Body Weight and Sex (Male or Female)
On average, men have about 76 c.c. of blood /kg body weight compared to 66 c.c. in females. This means that in general, males have more blood in which to dilute alcohol due to their larger size. In fact, even males of roughly the same weight as females have slightly more blood.
Food Content in Stomach
Only around 20% of alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach walls, while 80% is absorbed through the small intestine. However, if there is food in the stomach, alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly. Food in the stomach hinders the absorption of alcohol by preventing it from moving directly to the small intestine, where the majority will eventually enter the bloodstream.
Fatty foods also impede alcohol absorption moreso than others because they are more difficult to digest. Carbohydrates are passed through the stomach faster, which causes both the alcohol and the food to enter the small intestines more rapidly than high-fat content foods.
The Alcohol Content of a Drink
In general, the higher the ABV or alcohol content of a drink, the more rapidly the alcohol will eventually be absorbed into the bloodstream. Although one standard drink of hard liquor has about the same alcohol content as a typical beer, when consumed as a “shot,” the liquor is less diluted. Consequently, the effects will likely onset more rapidly.
Type of Mixer Used
Water and fruit juices, when combined with alcohol, slow the absorption process, while carbonated beverages such as soda will expedite it. Carbonated drinks accelerate the movement of alcohol through the stomach and intestine into the bloodstream, producing a more rapid rise in BAC.
Signs and Complications of Alcohol Intoxication
Warning signs and symptoms of acute alcohol intoxication may include the following:
- Dilation of blood vessels
- Increased risk of stroke
- Irregular breathing
- Impaired motor skills
- Impaired judgment
- Profoundly slow reaction time
- Slurred speech
- Bluish or pale skin color
A person doesn’t need to exhibit all the above signs and symptoms before emergency medical help should be sought. An individual with alcohol intoxication who is unconscious and cannot be aroused is at risk of dying. Someone who consumes a lethal amount of alcohol will eventually stop breathing, and even if revived, he or she can experience permanent brain damage.
What You Need to Do
If you suspect that a person is experiencing alcohol poisoning, do not assume they will merely “sleep it off”—seek medical intervention by calling 911 immediately or visiting the nearest emergency department.
While waiting for emergency personnel to arrive, do not leave the person by themselves or attempt to feed them or make them regurgitate. Alcohol impairs the gag reflex, so an individual who is highly intoxicated may aspirate on their own vomit and die.
If the person is vomiting, attempt to keep him or her in a sitting position, and if he or she must lie down, turn the person’s head to the side to prevent choking. If the individual is responsive, try to keep the person awake to prevent a loss of consciousness.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Alcohol addiction is a chronic, potentially devastating disease that tends to lead to a myriad of other adverse consequences related to one’s health and well-being and also dramatically affects the lives of loved ones.
Just Believe Recovery offers an integrated approach to addiction treatment that includes services vital for the process of recovery, including psychotherapy, counseling, and peer group support. We employ compassionate addiction specialists who provide clients with the knowledge, tools, and support they need to recover fully and learn to lead more happy and fulfilling lives.
If you or someone you love is enduring an alcohol use disorder, contact us today. Discover how we help people free themselves from the shackles of addiction for life!