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Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms and Causes

Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Celebrating at parties, watching a sports game with your friends, enjoying a night out on the town, or getting together after work for a drink can all be ways to socialize, blow off steam and enjoy friends. Still, for some people, these occasions can lead to binge drinking, potentially resulting in a dangerous experience of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking and alcohol poisoning have one common denominator: heavy drinking in a short period of time.

Alcohol poisoning is severe and can potentially be the lethal result of consuming too much alcohol in a short time. Alcohol poisoning can happen to anyone, regardless of weight, age, tolerance, gender, or metabolism. Alcohol poisoning can also occur unintentionally when children drink household products that contain alcohol. According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are 2,200 cases of alcohol poisoning each year. This averages to six instances of alcohol poisoning per day. According to the CDC, seventy-five percent of deaths related to alcohol poisoning occur in adults between the ages of 35 and 64.

Even if an individual stops drinking, the individual’s blood alcohol concentration (bac) can continue to rise for 30-40 minutes, increasing the risk and severity of alcohol poisoning. As a result, the effects of alcohol poisoning can occur without much warning.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Decreased level of consciousness
  • Irregular breathing
  • Clammy skin
  • Blue lips and/or fingertips
  • Hypothermia

How alcohol poisoning affects the body

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it slows down the body’s autonomic nervous system. This results in slower breathing, decreased gag reflexes, loss of muscle control, and slower heart rate. In addition, alcohol increases inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain. This causes poor balance, foggy memory, and slowed coordination. Alcohol is also known to irritate the stomach lining, causing stomach pain and vomiting. Dehydration and low blood sugar level also result from the overconsumption of alcohol.

Causes of alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning does not necessarily coincide with alcohol use disorder. For example, ninety percent of binge drinkers who experienced alcohol poisoning are not dependent on alcohol. However, individuals who experience alcohol poisoning do for a multitude of reasons that include the following:

  • First-time drinkers
  • Drinking as a way to celebrate
  • Drinking as a stress reliever
  • Drinking to “take the edge” off
  • Drinking at a social event

In other words, most forms of alcohol poisoning are unintentional, meaning that the individual did not foresee the consequences of binge drinking. Regardless, alcohol poisoning is dangerous and is highly linked to binge drinking.

How to help

If you witness an individual who is demonstrating signs of alcohol poisoning, you must call 911 immediately. In the meantime, it is important to keep the individual awake and sitting in an upright position. Do not allow the individual to eat or drink if they are not fully conscious. If the individual is unconscious and lying down, roll them onto their side and place their arms above their head. This would prevent any choking if they were to vomit.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning

If an individual is experiencing signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, they should seek medical attention immediately. In the emergency room, the individual most likely will require intravenous fluids, electrolytes and may have to have their stomach pumped. In addition, some individuals may need to be intubated if they cannot breathe on their own or if they are at risk of choking on their vomit because their gag reflex is inhibited.

If it is suspected that the individual does have an alcohol use disorder, then the individual needs to undergo detoxification and therapy in an alcohol treatment center. Alcohol use disorder is incredibly dangerous as withdrawal symptoms can be deadly, especially if the individual has been abusing alcohol for a long time. Entering into a professional alcohol treatment center to undergo detoxification in a safe and supervised setting is the first step in the right direction. After the individual has fully completed detoxification, long-term treatment options can prevent future cravings and relapse occurrences. Recovery from alcohol use disorder is a life-long journey that requires hard work, compassion, patience, and humility. One of the most difficult parts about entering into treatment is that we learn to understand the “why” tied to our drinking, the underlying deep triggers that we often suppress by using alcohol. These can be past trauma, depression, loneliness, or deep insecurities.

“Someone who is trying to be sober is often trying to work out deeper emotional issues and is attempting to undo years of habitual behavior. When you reduce recovery to just abstinence, it simplifies what is really a much more complex issue.”

Sasha Bronner

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