Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 95,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the United States, Excessive alcohol use includes:
- Binge drinking (defined as four or more alcoholic beverages per occasion for women or five or more drinks for men)
- Heavy drinking (defined as eight or more alcoholic drinks per week for women or 15 or more per week for men)
- Any alcohol consumption by a pregnant woman or someone under the age of 21
It’s no secret that alcohol addiction is prevalent throughout the U.S. and the world. Access to the drug offers a unique challenge when trying to combat the issue. The National Survey on Drug and Health (NSDUH) reported 85.6 percent of those 18 or older reported alcohol consumption at some point in their lives, while 54.9 percent reported drinking in the past month.
The survey also reported in 2019, 25.8 percent of those 18 or older engaged in binge drinking in the past month, with another 6.3 percent engaging in heavy alcohol use in the previous month. Nearly 14.1 million adults 18 or older could be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD), including 8.9 million men and 5.2 million women.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Heavy drinking has its risk, and alcohol poisoning can be fatal without proper intervention. Alcohol poisoning is when there’s too much alcohol in your system, and your brain starts to shut down, otherwise known as an alcohol overdose.
Since alcohol is a depressant, it means that it may affect your brain and nervous system, contributing to slowed breathing, heart rate, and other vital tasks your body completes. Although the liver does a stellar job of keeping alcohol toxins from your bloodstream, consuming a lot in a short period may prove too much for your liver.
Alcohol poisoning can cause long-term brain damage or death. If you’re with someone who shows signs of drinking too much, call 911 immediately. Here are some signs to determine if someone has alcohol poisoning. Although symptoms may start mild, they could worsen quickly. They are:
- Damp or clammy skin
- Strong alcohol odor
- Slurred speech or confusion
- Stumbling or poor coordination
More severe symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Throwing up
- Severe confusion
- Inability to stay awake
- Very slow heartbeat
- Slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute)
- Low body temperature
- Long pauses in between each breath (10 seconds or more)
- Pale or bluish skin
- Slow responses (no gag reflex)
Other complications stemming from alcohol poisoning include:
- Severe dehydration
- Choking on your own vomit
- Inability to breathe due to vomit in your lungs
- Brain damage
- Heart attack
Causes of Alcohol Poisoning
Alcoholic beverages contain a form of alcohol known as ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, which is the cause of alcohol poisoning. Other types of alcohol you may have around the house, like methanol (wood alcohol), isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), are toxic in a much different way. You should never consume this as an alternative to other alcoholic beverages.
As mentioned above, binge drinking is a significant cause of alcohol poisoning. For men, binge drinking is considered five drinks or more in less than two hours, whereas it’s four drinks in the same timeframe for women. Extreme binge drinking is double these amounts.
One drink is considered:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol)
- Five ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces of an 80-proof spirit (e.g., rum, tequila, vodka, or gin)
Alcohol Poisoning Risk Factors
Middle-aged adults and men have the greatest odds of getting alcohol poisoning. In most cases, men drink more than women, and middle-aged individuals are more likely to take prescription medication than younger adults, which increases the likelihood of developing the condition.
Other factors that influence alcohol poisoning include:
- Your overall health
- Size or weight
- Alcohol tolerance
- How recently you consumed food
- Whether you’re taking prescription or illicit drugs
- How much alcohol is in the drink
- How much and how fast you drink
Emergency Action for Alcohol Poisoning
If you’ve been with someone who’s drinking and you suspect alcohol poisoning, the sooner you reach out to emergency services, the lower the odds of someone developing long-term damage. Don’t wait – if you suspect alcohol poisoning, you should take the following steps:
- Call 911 immediately.
- Have the individual sip water if they’re conscious.
- Keep them sitting upright to avoid vomit in the lungs.
- Don’t leave the individual alone.
- Cover them with a warm blanket to prevent hypothermia.
- If they’re unconscious, turn them on their side to avoid choking on vomit.
- Tell the paramedics all of their symptoms and an idea of how much the person drank.
This is what you should not do:
- Do not give the person a cold shower—it’ll lower their body temperature further.
- Do not give them food as it can cause vomiting or choking.
- Do not have them “walk it off,” as it can lead to a serious fall.
- Do not try to induce vomiting as it can lead to choking.
Alcohol Poisoning Diagnosis and Treatment
Only a trained physician can determine your alcohol poisoning diagnosis. They will order blood and urine samples to check the levels of alcohol in your system. If you drank too much, doctors might resort to pumping your stomach to keep leftover alcohol from entering your bloodstream. In the hospital, they could also perform the following:
- Provide you with extra oxygen to help you breathe.
- Provide fluids through an IV.
- Flush your stomach of any remaining toxins.
- Remove any toxins that may be in your blood.
Alcohol Poisoning Prevention
Unless you’re an addict, the occasional alcoholic beverage, consumed responsibly, is unlikely to cause you harm. However, if you plan on drinking, you should keep the following tips in mind to avoid alcohol poisoning, a trip to the hospital, or even death.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Always eat food before.
- Always drinking in moderation. Men should not have more than two drinks a day, and women should have only one.
- Alternate alcoholic drinks with water.
- Don’t drink if you’re prescribed medication or currently use other drugs.
- Don’t play drinking games or use beer bongs or funnels.
If you feel that you’ve developed a problem with alcohol, your next route should always be to get help. Alcohol consumption can be deadly, and your life isn’t worth losing over something that can be treated.