When Binge Drinking Becomes Alcohol Poisoning
It’s finally arrived: the first football tailgate of the year. John and Richard have been inseparable since middle school and even followed each other to college where they couldn’t wait to become part of the rich culture of the school. As is the case with most colleges, sports teams were at the forefront of the school body’s attention, with the football team being the star of the show.
The first tailgate of the year was looked forward to by thousands with the same amount of anticipation as any holiday. While much of the attention of the student body is focused on the outcome of the game, perhaps even more attention is given to the unofficial pastime of the tailgate: binge drinking.
In certain situations, like the college tailgate, heavy drinking is highly encouraged. John and Richard were familiar with the culture of a tailgate and while John had his reservations about drinking recklessly, Richard had no such hang-ups. He was ready to accept the attention and encouragement that comes with drinking the most and the fastest.
Starting at 7 in the morning, John and Richard wandered between makeshift campsites, making loud conversation, playing cornhole and various yard games, and accepting any and all alcoholic beverages that are offered. The next couple hours are a blur of light beer, flavored whiskeys, and slime-green concoctions of “God-knows-what” served out of giant punch bowls. By 10 am, John has had his fill of reckless drinking and switches to drinking water in an effort to sober up by the time the actual football game starts.
Richard, in contrast, continues full-steam-ahead and keeps drinking whatever is offered to him by the droves of students and parents all dressed in the same school colors. By noon, John is attempting to collect Richard to enter the stadium for the game. Having known Richard for the better part of a decade, John realizes that something is off with his friend. Richard’s eyes are open but he isn’t responding to John’s instructions. His skin is also turning a bluish tint and is cold and clammy to the touch, despite the warm midday sun.
As a responsible friend, John realizes that his companion is in the early stages of alcohol overdose, a condition that eventually ends in alcohol poisoning.
He seeks immediate help from a school medic.
Binge Drinking and Alcohol Poisoning
Binge drinking is a popular adult activity in the United States. In fact, in a recent study, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that over 25% of people age 18 and older had engaged in binge drinking within the last month.
Many of the most popular social activities among young adults are either centered around drinking alcohol or have alcohol readily available for anyone who desires it.
Some of the most likely places where dangerous binge drinking can occur include:
- Sports games and tailgates
- Alcohol-centric holidays such as New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, and Cinco de Mayo
- College fraternity and sorority parties
- Bar happy hours and discounted drink nights
- Various other parties and get-togethers involving young adults
When there are situations where self-restraints are loosened and alcohol is free-flowing, it can create a perfect storm of alcohol use that can end up in tragedy.
As we learned with our friends in the story above, peer pressure can certainly be a factor that can influence a person towards binge drinking. The mentality of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” can be a great way to make friends and warm up to people. But when trying to fit in involves dangerous levels of drinking, it can lead to complications and health hazards.
Environmental factors aren’t the only thing that can cause a person to drink to dangerous excess. The short-term effects of alcohol are such that they can cause a person to feel extreme happiness and mask any negative feelings. For someone who suffers from anxiety or depression, alcohol can temporarily make them forget their troubles. That same person may continue to drink in an effort to silence negative thoughts, leading to a potentially dangerous situation.
As we all know, when someone drinks too much alcohol too quickly, it leads to a significant worsening of motor skills, decision-making skills, impulse control, and other important functions. While all of these things can increase a person’s risk of harm, they are not the worst outcome that can happen. If that person continues to drink despite clear signs of significant impairment, it can result in alcohol overdose and alcohol poisoning.
As a responsible friend, John was able to help his friend get the medical attention he needed. He realized how important it is to be able to identify the early signs of an alcohol overdose in order to avoid the serious consequences of alcohol poisoning.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol use, at any level, can be harmful. Anyone who has drunk alcohol to excess can tell you that a hangover is your body’s way of telling you drinking is harmful. Drinking alcohol to extreme excess can be deadly.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is so much alcohol in a person’s bloodstream that areas of the brain that are responsible for essential functions begin to shut down. These areas of the brain are responsible for basic life-sustaining functions such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control. Anyone who drinks too much alcohol too quickly is at risk of suffering from alcohol poisoning.
Anyone who engages in binge drinking is especially at risk of overdosing on alcohol and experiencing alcohol poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.
A BAC of 0.08 is also the “legal limit,” or the point at or above which a person is deemed to be too drunk to operate a motor vehicle legally.
Another disturbing trend identified by the NIAAA is known as “high-intensity” drinking. This occurs when a person drinks two or more times the binge-drinking thresholds for men and women. People who engage in high-intensity drinking are even more likely to suffer from alcohol poisoning.
BAC and Alcohol Overdose
The risk of alcohol poisoning all comes down to the amount of alcohol concentration in the bloodstream. When BAC increases, even a little bit, it can affect a person’s motor skills, cloud their judgment, and lead to impulsive behavior. When BAC reaches dangerously high levels, it can lead to blackouts (gaps in memory or memory loss), loss of consciousness (passing out), and even death.
The risk of alcohol poisoning doesn’t stop once a person stops drinking or passes out. A person’s BAC can continue to rise for 30 to 40 minutes after they’ve stopped drinking or lost consciousness. This is because alcohol that’s in the stomach and intestines can continue to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body even after a person has had their last drink. Because of this, it’s extremely dangerous to assume an unconscious person will “sleep off” alcohol intoxication just because they’ve passed out.
One potential danger of alcohol overdose is choking on one’s own vomit. As mentioned above, high levels of alcohol can shut down parts of the brain that are responsible for important automatic functions. This includes the gag reflex. Without a gag reflex, a person who passes out from drinking is at risk of choking on their vomit and dying due to lack of oxygen. Even if a person survives such a case, it’s very likely that person will have permanent brain damage due to an extended period without oxygen.
Spotting the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Learning how to tell if a person has progressed from being drunk to alcohol poisoning can help save the life of a friend or loved one. Luckily, there are specific signs and symptoms that suggest a person is in the early stages of alcohol poisoning.
These symptoms include:
- Mental confusion or stupor
- Hypothermia (an extreme drop in body temperature)
- Pale, clammy skin (sometimes skin will take on a bluish tint)
- Being awake but unable to respond
- Losing consciousness or passing out
- Slowed breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute)
- Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
- Slowed heart rate
- Vomiting or dry-heaving
In extreme cases of alcohol poisoning:
- A heart attack may occur
- Breathing may stop completely
- There is a serious risk of choking on their own vomit (or inhaling vomit into the lungs, leading to serious infection)
- The person may lose so much fluid that they become severely dehydrated (which can lead to brain damage)
- Blood sugar levels may drop to a dangerously low level, leading to a risk of seizures
Drinking Alcohol and Taking Other Substances
If a person drinks alcohol while under the influence of other drugs, this can compound their risk of alcohol overdose. This is a situation known as polysubstance use and is extremely dangerous.
Drinking alcohol while taking sedative drugs, such as sleep or anti-anxiety medications, can sharply increase the risk of fatal overdose. Examples of these types of drugs include sleep medications like zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta), as well as anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) such as diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax). Even drinking alcohol while taking over-the-counter antihistamine medications (like Benadryl) can be extremely dangerous.
Drinking alcohol while taking prescription opioid pain relievers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or morphine, or illegal opioids such as heroin, is also an incredibly dangerous combination. Much like alcohol, these opioid drugs slow down areas of the brain that control essential functions like heart rate and breathing. Drinking alcohol along with other drugs can intensify their individual effects and can cause an overdose.
What To Do If Someone Is Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning
Once you’ve made yourself aware of the warning signs of alcohol poisoning, it’s important to know what to do next. If you suspect someone has ingested a dangerous amount of alcohol, call 911 immediately. Don’t wait for the person to show all of the symptoms to seek help. Anyone who has passed out due to the effects of alcohol is still at risk of death or serious consequences.
It’s also very important to seek help from emergency medical professionals. Giving someone who has passed out a cold shower or hot coffee are things that you may have seen in movies, but they don’t help reverse an alcohol overdose. In fact, they may even make things worse.
Once emergency medical assistance has been called while waiting for them to arrive:
- Be prepared to provide important information to the medical responders. This includes the amount and type of alcohol the person drank, any other drugs they may have taken, and any health information you may have about the person. This includes their current prescribed medications, allergies to any medications, and any existing health conditions they may have.
- Don’t leave the person alone. Someone with potential alcohol poisoning is at high risk of injuring themselves or choking. It’s important to keep the person on the ground in a sitting or partially upright position.
- Help the person if they’re vomiting. Have them lean forward in an effort to prevent them from choking on their own vomit. If the person is passed out or lying down, roll them onto their side with an ear toward the ground to prevent them from choking.
Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
Once the person has been transported to the hospital, depending on their current BAC and the severity of signs and symptoms, the medical staff may just monitor them until their blood alcohol level drops to a safe level.
If their symptoms are severe enough, or their BAC is high enough, they may be given other treatments that include:
- insertion of a tube down the windpipe to help with breathing
- an intravenous (IV) drip to manage hydration, blood sugar, and vitamin levels
- insertion of a urinary catheter if they have become incontinent (are unable to hold their urine)
- pumping of the stomach. Fluids are flushed through the nose or mouth in an attempt to prevent alcohol in the stomach from further absorbing into the bloodstream.
Even when a person’s BAC has dropped below critical levels, they may still go through symptoms that can be extremely uncomfortable. These symptoms include:
- tremors (uncontrollable shaking)
- depression and anxiety
- nausea and vomiting
- stomach cramps and intestinal discomfort
While these symptoms will eventually go away within a day or two, it’s very important to stay hydrated during this period. It’s especially important to avoid drinking any alcohol during this period, as the body is recovering from alcohol overdose.
Again, if you suspect a friend or loved one is suffering from alcohol poisoning, don’t hesitate to call 911 immediately. It could mean the difference between life and death.
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What happens to your body when you have alcohol poisoning?
When a person has consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol, it begins to slow down the areas of the brain responsible for body temperature, heart rate, and breathing. If a person has consumed a fatal amount of alcohol, these essential functions will stop entirely, leading to death.
What’s good for alcohol poisoning?
If you suspect someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, never attempt “home remedies” such as putting them in a cold shower or giving them coffee. It’s extremely important to call 911 and seek emergency medical attention. Make sure they’re in a partially upright position to prevent them from choking on their own vomit while you wait for emergency help to arrive.
Do I have alcohol poisoning or a bad hangover?
While hangover symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, they are generally not believed to be fatal and occur well after a person has stopped drinking. Alcohol poisoning occurs while the person is still in the process of excessive drinking. Alcohol poisoning is caused by binge drinking or drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. This causes more toxins to build up in the bloodstream than the body can handle and leads to severe symptoms and possibly death.
What level is alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning occurs when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches dangerously high levels. While a BAC of 0.08 means a person is legally drunk, alcohol poisoning begins to occur when a person has a BAC of 0.250-0.399.