Every day, an average of six people die from alcohol poisoning in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 76% are adults between the ages of 34 and 64, and 76% are men.
Alcohol poisoning is a serious, sometimes fatal, condition that can occur when a person consumes a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. It can limit respiration, increase heart rate and raise body temperature to a dangerous level.
Common Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call for immediate help. Common symptoms include:
- Vomiting, sometimes uncontrollably
- Confusion or mental daze
- Slowed breathing, often as few as eight breaths a minute
- Seizure activity
- Blue-tinged skin due to lack of oxygen
- Pale skin
- Irregular breathing, often with gaps of 10 seconds or more between breaths
- Low body temperature, cold to the touch
- Passed out; unable to wake
Can you die from alcohol poisoning? These complications can increase the likelihood of a fatal outcome from alcohol poisoning. A seizure that lasts more than a few minutes or arrested breathing can cause death due to of lack of oxygen to the brain and also damage to the heart.
How Does Alcohol Poisoning Happen? Understanding the Mechanisms of Alcohol Poisoning
How do you get alcohol poisoning? It can happen to people who drink alcohol consistently or heavily. It can happen to someone on their first drink. The term often refers to ethyl alcohol poisoning. This form of ethanol is found in many alcoholic beverages, as well as some cooking extracts and mouthwash, and it’s most often the cause of alcohol poisoning.
However, there are other forms of alcohol, including isopropyl, found in rubbing alcohol and cleaning products, and ethylene glycol, found in antifreeze, solvents and paints. These can also cause toxic poisoning.
Consuming large amounts of alcohol, such as during binge drinking or even some social drinking experiences, can cause a toxic overdose. It’s far worse than being intoxicated.
When alcohol is consumed, the liver must metabolize it. A healthy liver can do this at a rate of about 8 grams of pure ethanol each hour, which is about 0.34 fluid ounces. When a person consumes more than this, the liver can’t remove the toxins fast enough, allowing more to enter the bloodstream and impacting the functions of the central nervous system.
Understanding the amounts and effects of alcohol consumption reveals how too many drinks can lead to a significant risk to life. Here is a progressive look at the effects of alcohol on the body based on the blood alcohol level (BAC):
- With a BAC of 0.001 to 0.029, a person will appear normal, with subtle effects detectable.
- With a BAC of 0.030 to 0.059, a person experiences a drop in social inhibitions and tends to become very happy, with mild euphoria. Some people will talk significantly, while others enter deep relaxation. At this level, there’s a decrease in attentional control.
- With a BAC of 0.600 to 0.099, a person will have a flush or reddened face, display a reduced affect and experience euphoria. They can handle more pain and tend to be more willing to behave recklessly. They also have significant impairment, including depth perception, glare recovery, reasoning and peripheral vision. At this level, they are a risk to themselves or others, especially behind the wheel of a car.
- With a BAC of 0.100 to 0.199, a person will be boisterous and emotionally over-expressive and will vomit and feel like the world is spinning. They don’t feel pain as much and lose muscle coordination. Impairments include being unable to speak well, staggering, having poor reflexes and have erectile dysfunction.
- With a BAC of 0.200 to 0.299, a person will be either angry or very sad, with impaired sensations, mood swings and a loss of understanding. Many will vomit, have nausea or suffer severe physical disability. Amnesia can lead to blackouts for periods of time. Some will become unconscious.
- With a BAC of 0.300 to 0.399, the central nervous system is depressed, creating instances of loss of consciousness, loss of understanding language and stupor. This can lead to urinary incontinence, a low resting heart rate and limited breathing. At this level, there’s a moderate level of risk of death.
- With a BAC of 0.400 to 0.500, a person is likely in a coma, facing a severe risk of death due to the depression of the central nervous system. Respiratory failure is likely, and the heart slows to a very dangerous level, limiting oxygen flow. Anything higher than this increases the risk of death.
How long alcohol poisoning takes is also impacted by a person’s tolerance levels, gender, size and type of alcohol consumed.
Different Alcohol Poisoning Effects
It’s important to recognize that what you’re drinking plays a role in how fast these changes occur in the body. Different types of alcohol create different risk levels. The more ethanol that a drink has, the more the liver has to process and, thus, the higher the risk.
The standard measurement for alcohol content is alcohol by volume (ABV) — the amount of ethanol as a percent of the total amount of fluid. Most beer has about 4.5% ABV, and most wines have 11.6% ABV. Liquor, which ranges significantly in ABV, has about 37% on average. Some liquors, such as vodka, contain as much as 40%.
However, a person can drink so much of any alcoholic beverage, even those with low ABV, that they can suffer from alcohol poisoning.
Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
Curing alcohol poisoning at home is not an option and can pose a life-threatening risk for some people. The longer this toxin is in the body, the more it may damage the heart and brain.
If you suspect alcohol poisoning, call 911 for immediate help. Remember, Good Samaritan laws are in place, which means that if you help someone who doesn’t want help, or they suffer worse injury because of the help you provide, you can’t be held responsible. Don’t wait to help someone. Minutes matter.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Poisoning
If help is obtained soon enough, it can prevent the fatalities that are so common from alcohol poisoning. Here are a few common questions about treatment.
What Can a Hospital Do for Alcohol Poisoning?
In a hospital setting, doctors monitor oxygen levels and heart function, providing medications to stabilize the patient and minimize brain damage. They also work to prevent choking. Using fluids given through an IV, they can prevent dehydration and help speed up the removal of toxins from the body. They monitor nutrient and glucose levels to prevent them from dropping drastically.
Does Activated Charcoal Help with Alcohol Poisoning?
Some people believe that using activated charcoal can help to reduce symptoms of a hangover. They believe it can bond with toxins and help minimize the body’s absorption of them. This may help to minimize risk prior to consuming alcohol, but it doesn’t help if taken during an alcohol poisoning instance. Activated charcoal is typically helpful to expel substances that are in the stomach. Due to alcohol’s quick uptake, activated charcoal is often not practical.
Dangerous Myths Alcohol Poisoning
There is no way to reverse the effects of alcohol poisoning. Sometimes, at-home remedies can make it worse. This includes sleeping it off, using coffee or taking a cold shower (alcohol poisoning is different than a hangover). It’s also not possible to speed up the detoxification process by walking it off. These situations put the user in more danger than they will help.
Will Alcohol Poisoning Cause Permanent Damage?
Alcohol poisoning can cause a number of long-term risks, including:
- Seizures that lead to brain damage
- Hypothermia that causes cardiac arrest and heart damage
- Irreversible brain damage
Alcohol Poisoning and Death
When so much alcohol is consumed that it causes alcohol poisoning, the body can’t get rid of it fast enough. As a result, the alcohol remains in the body and bloodstream and impacts brain functions. When the central nervous system can’t work properly, it can’t keep the heart rate high enough to sustain function. The heart stops working as it should, causing sudden cardiac arrest.
Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse Syndrome
A person with repeated instances of poisoning or those who use heavily can get help from FHE Health. Call our counselors for addiction treatment at (844) 299-0618.