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Teens Ask: What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Group of glasses with different alcoholic beverages in them.

Did you know that on average, half a dozen people die from alcohol poisoning in the U.S. each day? Even though most of these fatalities stem from chronic alcoholism, binge drinking by college students, and mixing alcohol and medications, teenagers are susceptible to the risk of injury or death from alcohol poisoning.

How Alcohol Impacts the Body

After all, alcohol is a toxin which gets absorbed more quickly into your bloodstream than food. Unless your liver filters it out, the alcohol flows to your brain and can cause anything from mild memory or balance loss to impaired speech and decision making to vomiting and passing out.

In most people, the liver can only filter out the alcohol amount found in a single drink (defined as a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of distilled liquor) each hour. Any excess alcohol will accumulate in the body until the person stops consuming booze.

How Much Booze Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines alcohol poisoning as the point “when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down.” When this occurs, death becomes a real possibility for the drinker.

While there’s no hard-and-fast level of intoxication associated with alcohol poisoning, the rule of thumb is a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.31% or higher—which is about four times the legal limit for drunk driving. That’s roughly equivalent to a 90-pound woman consuming six drinks in a single hour or a 140-pound man consuming ten drinks during that time. Moreover, a person’s BAC can continue to increase for 30 to 40 minutes after a person stops drinking.

How to Spot Alcohol Poisoning 

The line between drunkenness and alcohol poisoning can be difficult to ascertain, but some of the most common symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Hypothermia
  • Confusion
  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Cold and clammy hands
  • Unconsciousness despite attempts to be awakened
  • Seizures
  • Very slow breathing (sometimes as long as ten seconds between breaths)

What To Do and Not To Do

It’s essential to remember that alcohol poisoning is an acute medical emergency. Therefore, if you see someone with some or all of the aforementioned symptoms, here’s how to help someone with alcohol poisoning:

  • Call 911 if the individual is unresponsive or out of control
  • Keep him/her warm, conscious, and hydrated
  • Roll the person onto his/her side or sit him/her up
  • Monitor his/her breathing

You should NOT:

  • Ignore him/her and continue partying
  • Leave the individual unattended
  • Let him/her “sleep it off”
  • Provide coffee
  • Force the person to walk around

Woman resting her head on a white toilet.

If a person suffering from alcohol poisoning is not treated, he or she could:

  • Choke on his or her vomit
  • Stop breathing
  • Experience irregular heartbeat or full cardiac arrest
  • Suffer permanent brain damage from seizures

Once the patient begins receiving medical care, health care professionals may provide IV fluids, insert a tube into his or her throat to aid in breathing, and/or pump his or her stomach. Even after the person is out of danger, he or she will likely experience nausea, tremors, headaches, and/or stomach cramps. 

The moral of the story? Alcohol poisoning should be treated as seriously as a drug overdose—because that’s essentially what it is. And while mild to moderate teenage drinking can have negative consequences, alcohol poisoning can be deadly. So don’t let you or your friends become one of the more than 2,200 alcohol poisoning fatalities each year in the U.S.

If someone you know is addicted to alcohol, contact us today.

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