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Alcohol Overdose: Key Signs and What to Do

Girl passed out on a staircase from alcohol overdose next to a beer bottle  

Alcohol is one of the most popular drugs in the United States, despite the fact that it is a potent toxin. Overdoses can occur rapidly, with potentially lethal outcomes. Teenagers have a particularly high risk for overdoses: Their curiosity and drive to try new things combined with their low tolerance to alcohol can set them up for dangerous amounts of alcohol consumption.

What Causes an Alcohol Overdose?

Alcohol is metabolized by the liver at a rate of about one drink per hour. Overdoses are caused when alcohol is consumed at a rate that far outpaces alcohol metabolism in the liver, leading to a toxic buildup of alcohol in the blood.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning that it slows activity in the brain. Overdoses are associated with respiratory depression (slow, shallow breathing), hypothermia (reduced body temperature), dulled reflexes and reduced heart rate. Each of these on its own is potentially fatal. When these complications have combined the risk of overdose dramatically increases.

The most common objective measurement of alcohol intoxication is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A BAC of 0.1% means that there is 0.1 grams of alcohol for every 100 milliliters of blood. Although it is impossible to identify a precise amount of alcohol or specific BAC that can cause an overdose, general rules of thumb are established:

  • Up to 0.05% BAC: Mild impairment – mild physical and cognitive impairments
  • 0.06-0.15% BAC: Impairment – physical and cognitive impairments
  • 0.16-0.30% BAC: Severe impairment – dangerously impaired judgment and decision making, blackouts, vomiting and unconsciousness
  • Over 0.31% BAC: Life-threatening – vital life functions are suppressed
  • 0.45% BAC: Alcohol poisoning – stupor, coma, and death

Key Signs of an Alcohol Overdose

There are cardinal alcohol overdose symptoms and signs that may indicate a medical emergency:

  • Vomiting
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Clammy or blue skin
  • Slow heart rate
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Passing out
  • Loss of gag reflex

What to Do During An Alcohol Overdose

If someone is showing signs of an alcohol overdose, call 911.

Make sure the person is in a safe location and do not leave their side. If they are conscious, have them sit on the ground (not a chair because they could fall off) and try to keep them awake and warm. If they need to lay down, or if they are unconscious, lay them on their side to prevent them from choking on vomit if they vomit.

While you are waiting for the paramedics, try to collect as much information as you can, including what and how much they had to drink, whether they used any other substances, if they are taking prescription medications and whether they have any allergies or other health conditions. Knowing this information to relay to the paramedics when they arrive can help them treat the person who is overdosing.

Treatment for an alcohol overdose requires professional medical attention. In the case of complications, they can provide intravenous fluids, supplemental oxygen and medications to prevent or stop seizure activity.

Some people may be afraid that they will get in trouble if they seek help for a friend or classmate. Florida has a Good Samaritan Law in place that provides immunity from arrest, charge, prosecution, and penalization for anyone who seeks medical assistance for someone who they believe is experiencing an alcohol- or drug-related overdose.

If you are concerned that someone you are with is overdosing, call 911 immediately. The National Poison Control Center can also provide assistance: 800-222-1222.

What Not to Do During An Alcohol Overdose

There are several myths for how to handle extreme intoxication, all of which have been proven to be ineffective or even dangerous. If you’re with someone overdosing, do not:

  • Try to get them to drink water (they could choke)
  • Try to get them to drink coffee (caffeine worsens alcohol-induced dehydration)
  • Let them sleep it off
  • Try to get them to walk (they are likely to fall)
  • Put them in a cold shower (alcohol lowers the body’s temperature, a cold shower can induce hypothermia)

What Decreases the Chances of an Alcohol Overdose?

There are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of an overdose:

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach
  • Avoid binge drinking
  • Drink water between each alcoholic drink
  • Drink low-alcohol content drinks
  • Don’t participate in drinking games

If you are concerned that someone is at risk of an overdose, try to prevent them from drinking more alcohol.

Who’s Most at Risk of an Alcohol Overdose?

There are several risk factors that contribute to alcohol poisoning:

  • Height and weight
  • Age
  • Race
  • Overall health
  • Tolerance
  • Other drugs
  • Drink strength

Alcohol Overdose Statistics

Underage alcohol use has been decreasing steadily since 2002. Nationwide, 2018 data show that 9% of 12- to 17-year-olds reported use within the past 30 days, 4.7% reported binge drinking (at least one episode of four or more drinks per occasion for women or five or more for men) and 0.5% reported heavy alcohol use (five or more binge drinking episodes within the past 30 days). From 2015 to 2016, 9.15% of 12- to 17-year-olds in Florida reported alcohol use within the past 30 days.

Underage drinking still causes a great deal of harm. Nearly 120,000 emergency room visits involve teenage drinking every year, and over 4,000 teenagers die because of excessive drinking.

Recovering from an Alcohol Overdose

Recovering from an overdose is physically and mentally uncomfortable and can take days or even weeks. Symptoms that may be experienced during recovery include headache, nausea, anxiety, tremors and stomach cramps. It is important to take care of yourself physically and mentally during recovery. Drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol. Supplementing your diet with a multivitamin and thiamine (vitamin B1) may be helpful.

Finding Help for Alcohol Addiction

The benefits of quitting alcohol are especially significant for teenagers. The developing brain is at a particular risk for long-term brain damage caused by alcohol. Look for an alcohol treatment center that can provide physical and psychological care in addition to educational and recreational therapies that will help the teen develop new hobbies and skills.

If your teenager struggles with alcohol use, contact Next Generation Village to speak with a representative about how professional treatment can help them address their substance use disorder. Call today and help your teenager take the first step toward a healthier future.

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