Alcohol poisoning claims over 2,000 lives a year in the United States. Everyday almost 6 people die from alcohol poisoning and contrary to popular belief it is not in younger age groups. About 3 in 4 deaths from alcohol poisoning occurs in the 35 to 64 year age group although children and teens are at a greater risk of death from alcohol consumption. With children, even small amounts of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning.
How does alcohol poisoning occur?
Although the body can metabolize alcohol, it is nevertheless a toxic substance. Alcohol poisoning occurs when large amounts of alcohol are consumed in a short period of time. This usually refers to ethanol that is found in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine and spirit liquors. However, there are other types of alcohols and even consuming small quantities of these alcohols can lead to poisoning and death.
Alcohol is broken down by the liver and the byproducts are further metabolized and excreted from the body. Despite the body’s ability to metabolize and eliminate alcohol and its byproducts, it has a limited capacity to do so. Too much of alcohol in a short period of time can overwhelm this processing mechanism. It can leave unprocessed alcohol circulating in the system which can then even damage or shut down organs.
Read more on alcohol poisoning.
Since alcohol depresses the central nervous system, large amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream can slow down breathing, disrupt heart activity, impair brain activity and shut down the liver and kidneys. The degree to which the body is affected depends on several factors, including the amount of alcohol consumed, duration over which it is consumed, individual metabolic activity and body weight among other factors.
How to spot alcohol poisoning?
The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning can be mistaken for severe alcohol intoxication. As a result there is a delay in seeking medical attention and death is a possible outcome. Some signs like seizures may be an obvious indicator of alcohol poisoning but this is not always present. Always consult with a medical professional if a person who has consumed large amounts of alcohol appears to be barely breathing, cold to touch, abnormally pale and either unconscious or close to it.
Read more on blood alcohol level effects.
Vomiting is a common symptom of excess alcohol consumption. Even small amounts of alcohol may trigger vomiting in sensitive individuals due to the taste and irritation of the digestive tract. High levels of alcohol in the blood can also trigger the vomiting centers in the brain. In alcohol poisoning, vomiting can be dangerous because a person’s choking reflex may be impaired and vomitus can enter the respiratory tract.
Although normal brain activity is disrupted with excessive alcohol consumption, this is pronounced in alcohol poisoning. It extends beyond being irrational, emotional or losing inhibitions as is seen with alcohol intoxication. A person is confused and may not know their personal details such as their name, be unable to identify people or understand where they are.
The breathing rate slows down significantly in alcohol poisoning due to the depressive action of alcohol on the central nervous system. The slow breathing rate and abnormal breathing rhythm reduces the expulsion of carbon dioxide and intake of oxygen into the body. At times a person may stop breathing for periods of time and then the breathing starts up again, although it is very slow and shallow.
Stupor is where a person is conscious but unresponsive to external stimuli. Most of us think of this simply as inebriation but with alcohol poisoning, stupor is pronounced. The central nervous system is severely depressed and most cognitive functions are impaired. A person is close to unconsciousness. Although the person is wake, there is a lack of response or barely any response to sound, light or other stimuli as would be expected.
The skin may became pale and there may even be a bluish tinge. This is due to the drop in oxygen levels and rise in carbon dioxide within the bloodstream as result of the slow down of breathing and even heart activity. Furthermore the low body temperature that occurs with alcohol poisoning leads to narrowing of the tiny blood vessels of the skin. This is in contrast to the redness (flushing) with initial alcohol consumption.
Low Body Temperature
Low body temperature (hypotheramia) is another consequence of alcohol poisoning. It occurs for several reasons such as reduced metabolic activity and excessive heat loss when the blood vessels were widened with initial alcohol consumption (when flushing was evident). The effects of alcohol on central nervous system can also disrupt the thermoregulatory mechanism which ensures that the body temperature is maintained within a narrow range.
Seizures (“fits”) may not always be seen with every case of alcohol poisoning. When it does occur with excessive alcohol consumption then it is an adverse sign and indicative of alcohol poisoning. It arises with abnormal brain activity due to the high levels of alcohol in the blood. Seizures may not always be the typical abnormal and uncontrollable muscle contraction and relaxation. Sometimes it is barely noticeable.
Loss of Consciousness
Eventually a person loses consciousness. The person cannot be awaken despite trying to do so. While it is not uncommon for a person to fall asleep or “pass out” with excessive alcohol consumption, in alcohol poisoning the loss of consciousness can be dangerous. There may even be a risk of death with choking or in excessively high alcohol levels, life-sustaining processes shut down.
First Aid for Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning needs to be treated and managed by medical professionals. While medical attention is being sought, the following measures can make the difference between life and death.
- Place a person in the recovery position (illustrated above) if they are unconscious. This prevents choking and allows the airway to remain open. Never allow the person to lie on their back.
- Make a person who is conscious to sit upright and keep them awake. Do not make the person walk around or undertake any strenuous physical activity to “burn off” the alcohol.
- Offer a person water to drink if they are conscious and able to swallow. Further alcohol consumption must be stopped and beverages like coffee should also be avoided as it can worsen dehydration.
- If breathing and heart activity stops, CPR should be commenced. Ideally it should be performed by a person with training and emergency medical attention needs to be sought.