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Alcohol Poisoning

a woman experiencing symptoms associated with alcohol poisoning

Published: June 4, 2024

Excessive alcohol use is responsible for thousands of deaths every year, many of which are the direct result of alcohol poisoning. Americans who abuse alcohol or have an alcohol use disorder are even more likely to develop alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning is very dangerous and can be life-threatening in many cases. However, knowing how to identify it and seek treatment can save lives. Learning about alcohol poisoning can also help prevent it in the future.

Keep reading to learn all you need to know about alcohol poisoning including signs and symptoms, effects on your body and brain, and more.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, caused by excessive alcohol consumption over a short period of time, occurs when there is too much alcohol in your bloodstream for your body to function properly. Also referred to as alcohol overdose, it is a serious condition that can even be fatal without medical attention.

When you drink alcohol, it enters your bloodstream, causing your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to rise. Because alcohol is a depressant and slows down your body’s functions, if your BAC gets too high the alcohol will begin shutting down parts of your brain.

One of the most common ways to develop alcohol poisoning is by participating in binge drinking. Binge drinking occurs when you drink a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, typically four drinks for women and five drinks for men in two hours. Binge drinking causes your BAC to rise rapidly, which can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

There are several symptoms associated with alcohol poisoning that can be very unpleasant and potentially life-threatening. It’s important to be able to identify alcohol poisoning symptoms in yourself and others.

Common symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include confusion, seizures, slow heart rate, slow breathing or irregular breathing, difficulty remaining conscious, incontinence, lack of gag reflex, and lack of coordination. Most of these symptoms are a result of parts of the brain shutting down, whereas other symptoms, such as vomiting, are the body’s attempt to get rid of the excessive alcohol.

Severe symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Hypothermia
  • Blue-tinged skin or paleness
  • Clammy skin

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning look different for everyone, so some people may experience many of the symptoms listed above while others may only experience a few. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone else, it’s highly recommended to seek medical attention.

Effects of Alcohol on the Body and Brain

Drinking alcohol has effects on many different parts of your body and brain. First and foremost, as mentioned above, alcohol is a depressant and can affect the way your brain works. This is because it slows brain activity and interferes with its communication pathways.

Other parts of your body that can be affected by alcohol include your heart, respiratory system, liver, and pancreas.

Excessive drinking for short or long periods can cause heart damage and conditions like stroke, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and irregular heartbeat.

As for your respiratory system, excessive drinking can weaken your immune system, damage your lungs, and make your respiratory tract more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and pneumonia.

Most people are familiar with the impact of alcohol on the liver as the organ is responsible for processing and metabolizing substances. Heavy drinking can lead to liver damage and conditions including alcohol-related hepatitis, cirrhosis, steatosis, and fibrosis.

Your pancreas can also be impacted by alcohol abuse. This is because alcohol can lead to pancreatitis which causes inflammation, swelling, and pain.

Finally, alcohol can even affect your mental health and cognitive functions. High blood alcohol levels can affect your brain’s cognitive functions and your mental health as alcohol is a depressant. However, heavy drinking can also affect your mental health long term, leading to the development or exacerbation of depression, anxiety, or memory loss.

Recognizing Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning typically comes with an array of tell-tale signs and behaviors. It is essential to be familiar with common signs of alcohol overdose as it can save a life.

Signs and behaviors associated with alcohol poisoning include:

  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • Erratic breathing
  • Pale or clammy skin
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Low body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Dulled responses

It is of the utmost importance for friends, family, and other bystanders to keep an eye out for these signs, especially in settings where drinking regularly occurs. Being able to identify alcohol poisoning early on and seek medical treatment as soon as possible can reduce the risk of death and permanent damage.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and Risk Factors

As mentioned above, alcohol poisoning occurs when your BAC gets too high and starts to shut down parts of your brain. Let’s take a closer look at the correlation between BAC and alcohol poisoning severity.

Simply put, the higher your BAC, the more likely you are to develop alcohol poisoning and experience severe side effects of the condition. It’s important to note that your BAC can even increase after you’ve stopped drinking. This is because alcohol can remain in the stomach or intestines and later enter the bloodstream.

On top of BAC, there are several risk factors associated with alcohol poisoning. These factors increase your likelihood of developing alcohol poisoning.

One of the most common risk factors for alcohol poisoning is binge drinking, as previously mentioned. This is because downing large amounts of alcohol causes your BAC to rise rapidly. For many people, they may not even realize how quickly they are becoming intoxicated, making it much more likely to drink enough to cause alcohol overdose.

In a similar vein, another risk factor is drinking on an empty stomach. Without food in your system prior to drinking, your body is able to absorb alcohol at a much faster rate which causes your BAC to rise much more quickly.

People who frequently abuse alcohol or have an alcohol addiction are also at higher risk for alcohol overdose. This is because alcohol abuse can lead to excessively high BAC. A unique issue for people with alcohol addictions is that over time they may drink more at once to feel the same effects, which can lead to overdose.

Another risk factor is low tolerance for alcohol. Everyone has a different tolerance for alcohol, and those who have a low tolerance are much more susceptible to alcohol poisoning as it takes less alcohol for them to overdose. Tolerance often goes hand in hand with weight, people who weigh less tend to have a lower alcohol tolerance and, in turn, are at higher risk for alcohol poisoning.

An overlooked risk factor is combining alcohol and other medications. Many people don’t think about the interactions their daily medications can have with alcohol. Certain medications can increase the effects of alcohol. As a result, fewer alcoholic drinks can lead to alcohol poisoning when combined with these drugs.

Lastly, sex and age can also increase your risk for alcohol poisoning. Men as well as teenagers and young adults are at higher risk of alcohol overdose compared to their counterparts.

Dangers and Complications of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is extremely dangerous and should not be taken lightly. There are countless dangers and complications that can occur as a result, especially without proper medical care.

Without treatment, the dangers of alcohol overdose can include respiratory depression, brain damage, coma, asphyxiation, and death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use causes 178,000 deaths every year, roughly 2,200 of which are alcohol poisoning deaths. Alcohol abuse and alcohol overdose are an epidemic in America and can permanently alter the lives of those who survive alcohol poisoning.

Another effect of alcohol poisoning is the impact it can have on individuals, families, and even communities. For individuals who have experienced alcohol poisoning, they may experience complications that affect their day-to-day lives.

As for families and communities, losing a loved one to alcohol poisoning can be extremely shocking, difficult, and even traumatizing.

Seeking Medical Attention for Alcohol Poisoning

Seeking medical care for alcohol poisoning is absolutely vital. Alcohol poisoning cannot be treated at home and cannot be slept off. It is a medical emergency that requires proper treatment.

If you notice any common signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning such as inability to stay awake or excessive vomiting, it is highly advised to seek medical treatment. That being said, if you notice severe signs and symptoms in someone such as blue-tinged skin, irregular breathing, unconsciousness, or slow heartbeat, you should call 911, or other emergency services, or get the individual to the nearest healthcare facility as soon as possible.

Once you seek medical attention, healthcare providers will assess the individual for alcohol poisoning by asking questions about their alcohol consumption and performing tests such as liver function tests, tests to check heart function, BAC tests, and electrolyte panel tests.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning can include stomach pumping, blood filtration, IV fluids, and oxygen therapy.

Stomach pumping is a treatment service that suctions toxins from the stomach. This can help prevent BAC from rising even more. On the other hand, oxygen and fluids can help address dehydration and breathing issues associated with alcohol overdose. Finally, blood filtration can help process the excessive alcohol in the bloodstream as the kidneys may not be able to do so on their own.

Prevention and Harm Reduction Strategies

While alcohol overdose is incredibly dangerous, it’s important to note that there are ways to prevent it and harm reduction strategies you can practice.

The best way to prevent alcohol poisoning when drinking is to practice responsible drinking habits. This includes pacing your drinks and avoiding binge drinking. As a general guideline, it’s recommended to avoid having more than one alcoholic beverage per hour.

The amount of alcohol that is considered a standard drink varies between types due to their different alcohol contents.

Here are some general measurements:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces
  • Malt liquor: 8-9 fluid ounces
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces
  • Liquor: 1.5 fluid ounces

In addition to pacing your drinks, other tips include:

  • Eat before you drink
  • Alternate alcohol with water to stay hydrated
  • Avoid drinking games
  • Avoid drinking on medication

Harm reduction strategies are a great way to prevent alcohol poisoning as well. This can look like education, planning ahead, and even addiction treatment.

All sorts of alcohol education programs can help inform you of the dangers of alcohol and teach you strategies to avoid alcohol overdose. This can be a particularly beneficial strategy for teens and young adults who may be new to drinking.

Another great harm reduction strategy is to have a designated driver. In addition to making sure you get home safely, designated drivers can double as guardians by keeping an eye on those who are drinking. If someone seems to be drinking too much too fast, the designated driver can intervene and look out for any signs of alcohol poisoning.

Lastly, if you or someone you know abuses alcohol regularly or has an alcohol addiction, a fantastic way to reduce the likelihood of alcohol overdose is to seek an alcohol addiction treatment program.

Find Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that can lead to death if not properly treated. It is caused by excessively high BAC and occurs frequently as a result of alcohol abuse or binge drinking. Luckily, there are ways to treat and prevent it, including alcohol abuse treatment.

If you or a loved one has more questions about alcohol poisoning and addiction, give our helpline a call today.

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