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Alcohol Poisoning – How Dangerous Is It?

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When someone binge drinks in a short amount of time, their blood alcohol level becomes very high that it becomes toxic; therefore developing alcohol poisoning.  This is when a person becomes disoriented, unresponsive, extremely confused, shallow breathing, and can perhaps pass out or go into a coma. Alcohol poisoning is life-threatening when not treated urgently.

A common cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking. Although less common it also occurs when somebody drinks household products containing alcohol.

When alcohol, a known toxin, is consumed it is filtered through the liver from the bloodstream. Alcohol is absorbed a lot faster into the bloodstream than food.  The liver is only able to process a limited amount.  In fact, only one unit of alcohol every hour is processed through the liver.  Whenever there is more than one unit consumed within an hour means that there are extra units of alcohol in the bloodstream.  The faster someone drinks, the higher their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) becomes.

Rapid drinking subsequently elevates BAC, both physical and mental tasks become harmfully affected. Breathing, heartbeat and gag reflex are some of the reactions to elevated BAC.  Someone may choke, be unable to breath, and develop heart arrhythmia. These vital physical functions can cease performance and someone can stop breathing and lose consciousness (passes out).  According to Statistics Canada there were approximately 860 alcohol poisoning deaths between the year 1950 and 2000. 

The population at highest risk of developing alcohol poisoning are college students, chronic alcoholics, people on medication that contraindicate with alcohol, adolescents experimenting and accidental consumption from younger children on household products.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

BAC continues to rise up to a half an hour and forty minutes after someone’s last drink which can make symptoms worse.

The following symptoms of alcohol poisoning:

  • Major decrease in reaction time or no reactions
  • Loss of consciousness or deep sleep
  • Problems breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Skin that is moist or cold to the touch (hypothermia)

In more severe cases of alcohol poisoning the following can occur: choking on one’s own vomit, breathing stops completely or a heart attack. Hypothermia also becomes dangerous as there’s risk of brain damage. Also dangerous are when there are fits or seizures which happen when blood glucose levels drop to low levels.

Extreme cases of alcohol poisoning are coma, sometimes leading to death.

We are focusing more on the health issues of alcohol poisoning, rather than criminal issues such as fights, sexual assaults or other unlawful behaviour.

What to do if you suspect alcohol poisoning

Call 911 immediately if you suspect someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning.  In the meantime the following needs to be done before paramedics arrive:

  • Keep the individual awake.  Talk with them, pinch them if need be.
  • Keep them in a sitting position if possible.  If they are unconscious they should be laid on his/her side and monitored closely so that he/she is breathing or does not choke.
  • If they are able to – give them water NOT coffee as it will make them dehydrated and worsen the condition
  • Never give them more alcohol to drink
  • Most importantly, never leave someone to sleep it off or walk it off and don’t douse them with cold water.  A person with alcohol poisoning can die in as little as under an hour. So don’t wait it out – get help. It could save a life.

Once a patient has been admitted to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, the medical team may only monitor them until alcohol levels have dropped.  A tube may be inserted into the windpipe to help with breathing.  They also may have an I.V. drip to assist with hydration and blood glucose and vitamin levels.  Catheters are given to those that have become incontinent. In severe cases where BAC levels are very high and symptoms are severe their stomach may be pumped.  Stomach pumping consists of fluids being flushed through a tube that goes down their mouth or nose.

Kidney dialysis is normally used to speed up the removal of toxins if a child with alcohol poisoning has unintentionally drunk methanol or isopropyl alcohol.

Someone that suffered from alcohol poisoning, may have to question their drinking behaviour.  When binge drinking becomes a common occurrence it’s possible that they need alcohol treatment. 

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