It’s shocking, but true: 6 Americans are killed each day by alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning usually results from binge drinking or heavy drinking. It happens when the body can’t catch up with the amount of alcohol being ingested.
Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Risks and Prevention
Alcohol poisoning is much more likely to affect those who struggle with alcoholism. It’s also more likely to affect those with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
It’s easy to fall victim to liquor poisoning. Often, everything happens rather quickly. One minute, you’re good, and the next you’re reeling and falling in an out of conscious.
What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?
Poisoning from alcohol happens when a person ingests more alcohol than the body can handle. With each drink, alcohol accumulates within the bloodstream and fatty tissues.
Alcohol is removed from the body via the liver. An enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down alcohol into other metabolites. The end game is to break alcohol down into carbon dioxide and water.
The liver can only metabolize a set amount of alcohol at a time. This will vary based on one’s weight and height, among other factors. In most cases, the liver can break down 0.6 ounces of alcohol every 90 minutes.
Those who drink faster than the amount of time needed for the body to clear the alcohol will experience alcohol poisoning. As a result, alcoholics are usually more susceptible to alcohol poisoning.
Once consumed, 20% of the alcohol enters the bloodstream via the stomach. The small intestine absorbs the other 80%. Either way, the alcohol ends up in the system. This is measured as Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC).
After a certain point, the alcohol will affect all vital organs. It will even affect the brain. Depending on the severity of the alcohol poisoning, the alcohol may cause irreversible and irreparable damage.
Symptoms of Ethanol Poisoning
Alcohol has an effect on one’s body and mind. If you drink enough to experience alcohol poisoning, the alcohol concentration in your body has reached alarming levels. The alcohol will begin to affect your vital organs, your brain, and more. This is far different than just being drunk.
Common alcohol poisoning signs and symptoms include:
- Brain damage
- Clammy or cold skin
- Depressed breathing
- Irregular breathing and pulse
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Losing consciousness
- Low body temperature to the point of causing cardiac arrest
- Motor impairment and lack of physical coordination
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Seizures due to significantly lowered blood sugar levels
- Severe dehydration, which can result in a low blood pressure
- Slow breathing that reaches less than 8 breaths a minute
- Stopped breathing, which can lead to asphyxiation
Some drinkers will experience a multitude of these symptoms, while others will only experience a few. Liquor poisoning affects each individual in a different way.
Blood Alcohol Levels and Impairment
Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) influences one’s level of alcohol intoxication. The higher the BAC, the more intoxicated a person is.
Intoxication levels and symptoms will vary from individual to individual. Regardless, there is still an approximate baseline that is pertinent to most people. Here’s a look at the type of impairment or effect that various BACs have.
0.02 to 0.03 BAC: The drinker will feel relaxed and a slight sense of euphoria. They may begin to feel bolder.
0.04 to 0.06 BAC: At this level, most drinkers feel relaxed and have lower inhibitions. They also tend to feel more euphoric. Some minor impairment in cognitive functioning, related to reasoning and memory, can be expected.
0.07 to 0.09 BAC: The legal drinking limit for drivers is 0.08 BAC. At this level, users may experience some slight impairment to their balance, vision, reaction times, hearing and speech.
0.10 to 0.125 BAC: Speech becomes slurred. Reaction times, vision, balance and hearing becomes impaired. There is a fairly significant impairment in motor coordination and reasoning skills.
0.13 to 0.15 BAC: Expect blurry vision, loss of balance and gross motor impairment. Drinkers start to feel anxious and restless.
0.16 to 0.19 BAC: Users often feel nauseous and become ‘sloppy’.
0.20 BAC: Many experts would agree that this is the start of ethanol poisoning. At this level, drinkers feel dazed, confused and disoriented. Some drinkers will feel nauseous and others may even vomit. Unfortunately, the gag reflex is impaired at this point. This means that it’s easy for drinkers to choke on their own vomit. Both en bloc and fragmentary blackouts are also likely to occur.
0.25 BAC: If a 0.20 BAC didn’t cause liquor poisoning, a 0.25 BAC definitely will. At this level, drinkers experience severe mental, physical and sensory impairment. They’re also likely to fall prey to asphyxiation.
0.30 BAC: Drinkers have little comprehension of their condition and situation. They often don’t know where they are, and may pass out.
0.35 BAC: Most people will fall into a coma at this point. This is far past alcohol poisoning.
0.40 BAC: At this level, drinkers are close to death. Coma will begin to set in, and there’s even a possibility of death caused by respiratory arrest.
In most cases, alcohol poisoning starts to kick in at a blood alcohol level between 0.20 and 0.25 BAC. This is when alcohol can start to become deadly.
Risk Factors of Alcohol Poisoning
The amount of alcohol needed to reach alcohol poisoning will vary from person to person. Some people naturally metabolize alcohol in a quicker manner than others.
There are several factors that increase one’s risk of ethanol poisoning. Some of these factors include:
- The drinker’s weight and height
- The drinker’s overall health
- Whether food was consumed with the alcohol
- Whether the alcohol is mixed with other drugs
- The amount of alcohol in each drink
- The rate at which alcohol is being consumed
- The drinker’s tolerance level
Food consumption will slow down the absorption rate of alcohol. Those who eat while they drink are less likely to experience alcohol poisoning.
College drinkers, heavy drinkers and those taking medications that interact with alcohol are more likely to experience poisoning from alcohol.
How Is Alcohol Tolerance Built?
One of the main risk factors is the drinker’s tolerance level. Each person will have a different tolerance level for alcohol. While some people can easily guzzle down 5 beers, others may have difficulties finishing one without getting buzzed.
Heavy drinkers tend to be able to metabolize alcohol much more quickly. This is partially because the body is already expecting the alcohol. As a result, the liver produces vast amounts of enzymes needed to break it down. This expedites the metabolic process.
This is why many alcoholics are high functioning. Their body has built up a significant amount of tolerance. Their body can clear large amounts of alcohol in no time. This is why they may not be impaired even after downing several drinks. In fact, they might not even feel the effects of the alcohol.
How to Prevent Liquor Poisoning
If you’re careful, you can drink responsibly and avoid alcohol poisoning altogether. To do so, you should:
- Avoid mixing alcohol with other drugs. It’s difficult to determine how alcohol will react when it interacts with other drugs. You also don’t want to mix alcohol with prescription drugs.
- Drink in moderation. Avoid binge drinking. Binge drinking for women is defined as having more than 4 drinks on one occasion for. For men, it is defined as having more than 5 drinks in one occasion.
- Drink water after every drink. Water will keep you hydrated, so that you’re less likely to get nauseous.
- Eat when you drink. By having some food in your stomach, you can slow down alcohol absorption. This won’t prevent alcohol poisoning if you are drinking large amounts of alcohol. However, if you are drinking responsibly, it can help prevent your BAC from increasing too rapidly.
- Educate yourself and others around you about alcohol poisoning. Many people are unaware of the dangers involved with alcohol poisoning. It’s important to educate not only yourself, but also those around you. If you’re a parent, educate your kids.
You should also avoid becoming reliant on alcohol to deal with your problems. In particular, you don’t want to become a depressed drinker or a de-stress drinker.
How Much Can You Drink?
To prevent alcohol poisoning, drink responsibly. This means monitoring and keeping track of the amount of alcohol that you are drinking. Ration your beverages to avoid going overboard.
You want to make sure that you aren’t drinking too quickly. Confirm that the liver has enough time to process and metabolize the alcohol.
In general, a person’s liver can metabolize about one serving of alcohol every hour. To make this simple, your body can usually tolerate and metabolize a standard drink each hour. This is basically:
- 12 fluid ounces of beer if it contains 5% alcohol
- 8 to 9 fluid ounces of malt liquor if it contains 7% alcohol
- 5 fluid ounces of wine if it contains 12% alcohol
- 1.5 fluid ounce shot of distilled spirits if it contains an alcohol content of up to 40%
To determine how much alcohol you can drink each hour, consider the alcohol percentage of each drink. If the beer contains a higher alcohol level than 5%, you can’t drink as many beers in one sitting.
If you are drinking cocktails at the bar, ask the bartender how much alcohol is in each drink. This makes it a lot easier to ration and control the amount of alcohol that is consumed.
Those who are able to stick to drinking only one standard drink an hour should be able to avoid alcohol poisoning.
How to Treat Alcohol Poisoning
Despite your best attempts in preventing alcohol poisoning, it can still happen. If someone you know is suffering from alcohol poisoning, call 9-1-1 immediately. Don’t wait.
You also want to stay with the affected individual until help arrives. This is because they can still choke on their own vomit. Other steps that you can take to ensure their safety include:
- Keeping the affected individual awake if possible, as you want to make sure that they don’t lose consciousness
- Encouraging them to slowly drink water to stay hydrated
- Placing the person in a sitting position to keep them from choking on their own vomit
- Wrapping them in a blanket or in more layers of clothes to keep them warm
Talk to the affected individual as much as possible. You want to keep them up-to-date with what’s going on. This will greatly improve the situation.
If the person suffering from alcohol poisoning is unconscious, roll them onto their side. Place their arms over their head. This will prevent them from choking on their vomit. Since these individuals can choke on their own vomit, you want to avoid feeding them anything. You also want to avoid giving them caffeine, as this will only make them even more dehydrated.
Be prepared to administer CPR. It’s not unusual for those suffering from alcohol poisoning to undergo cardiac arrest.
Medical Treatments for Alcohol Poisoning
Once the emergency responders arrive, the affected individual will receive medical treatment. They will most likely be transported to a hospital, so doctors can track their condition.
The doctors will also check to make sure that the alcohol didn’t cause lasting damage.
Depending on how severe the alcohol poisoning was, different types of medical treatments will be recommended. Popular options include:
- Intravenous fluid therapy to keep the individual hydrated and healthy
- Intubation to prevent choking and to clear the airway
- Oxygen therapy to encourage breathing
- Stomach pumping to remove excess alcohol in the body
- Vitamin and glucose treatments to raise blood sugar levels, which prevent seizures
In many cases, doctors will use a variety of treatment options at once. This is to guarantee the safety and health of the affected individual.
Seek Help for Alcohol Poisoning
If you’ve ever experienced alcohol poisoning, then you know how scary it can be.
Just because a person suffered from alcohol poisoning it does not mean that he or she is an alcoholic or has an alcoholic use disorder (AUD). It does, however, indicate that they can’t moderate their own drinking.
With that said, alcoholics are much more likely to experience alcohol poisoning multiple times. If you notice that you’ve had alcohol poisoning more than once, it might be time to seek help. Answer the 20 questions in our alcohol addiction quiz to see whether you may be an alcoholic.
If you are an alcoholic, it’s time to seek help. Don’t wait. The longer that you wait, the worse the withdrawal symptoms will be. As alcohol withdrawals can be quite deadly, it’s crucial that you seek medical help. Medical detox will make getting sober a much easier task.