The Facts about Alcohol Poisoning

Much of the focus on the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption has been concentrated on the campaign to reduce drunk driving; and rightly so, as more than 10,000 Americans lose their lives each year in automobile accidents involving intoxicated drivers. But there is another hazard associated with drinking to excess that has gotten short shrift, and this lack of attention and publicity is something that should be corrected. The condition we are referring to is alcohol poisoning, and anyone who indulges in binge drinking while remaining unaware of this very real risk could be setting himself up for trouble.

By this time, most people have probably heard that moderate alcohol consumption can actually be good for the human body. This may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that alcohol is a toxin, and when it is ingested in large amounts it can be extremely destructive to healthy biological functioning. Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, the liver immediately goes into action to filter and extract it as quickly as possible, before it is able to do any real damage. But when people consume prodigious amounts of alcohol in a relatively brief period of time, their livers may become overtaxed and may not be able to work efficiently enough to remove the alcohol as fast as it is accumulated. Consequently, the concentration of alcohol in the blood can soar to dangerously high levels, far beyond the limit at which it is no longer safe to drive. At this stage, alcohol poisoning can occur, and if those suffering from this condition do not receive medical attention rapidly the results could be dire.

In the United States each year, approximately 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning are diagnosed in hospital emergency rooms and other medical facilities. Fortunately, its effects are usually not fatal, but about 50 Americans do lose their lives to alcohol poisoning annually. Tragically, the majority of these victims are adolescents and college-age adults, who leave behind shattered and heart-broken families.

Alcohol Poisoning Onset and its Symptoms

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict exactly when a person who has been drinking might be at risk for alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking can lead to toxic blood alcohol levels, this is certain, but it is impossible to say for sure how much alcohol a particular individual would have to drink in a specific period of time before alcohol poisoning would occur. What we can say is that those who choose to binge drink are playing with fire, and they could end up badly burned as a result of their careless behavior.

While the point at which alcohol poisoning can occur is unpredictable, its effects are well established and relatively easy to detect. People suffering from alcohol poisoning are highly likely to manifest some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Choking
  • Indications of hypothermia (i.e. a pale complexion, shivering, skin that feels cold to the touch)
  • Excessive thirst (dehydration)
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Rapid, incomprehensible speech
  • A loss of consciousness

The last symptom can be especially concerning because once they lose consciousness many victims of alcohol poisoning will ultimately lapse into a coma, which could very well be a prelude to death. But the appearance of any of these symptoms is a sign of medical emergency, and whenever alcohol poisoning is suspected an ambulance should be summoned immediately. If no action is taken, things could get much worse before they get better; an irregular heartbeat could lead to cardiac arrest, hypothermia could cause the body’s organs to begin to shut down, and vomiting combined with the repression of the gag reflex could cause someone suffering from alcohol poisoning to choke to death on their own vomit.

One of the unusual aspects of alcohol poisoning is that the symptoms will continue to worsen even after a person has stopped drinking. From the point of consumption it may take 30-40 minutes before alcohol enters the bloodstream, but because people do not realize this, many think that if a person who exhibits signs of a toxic reaction is prevented from drinking anything else, everything will be okay. This is not the case at all, and once a person begins to show indications of alcohol poisoning it is already too late to do anything but get that individual to a hospital as fast as possible. To do anything else is to risk life and limb unnecessarily.

A Culture of Risk

When people hear the term ‘binge drinking’ they tend to think of it as a common behavior of youth. Among teens and on college campuses, reckless and prolific alcohol use functions as a rite of passage into adulthood for many, and because most of this drinking is practiced by those who are under the legal age there is a culture of secrecy surrounding this behavior that can make people reluctant to call for help when someone takes things too far. Unfortunately, many young people who have been drinking heavily are more worried about getting into trouble with the law than they are about the medical condition of their friends, although in fairness it probably never occurs to most that they are really in a life-threatening situation.

But in fact, that is exactly what is being faced in many instances. Alcohol poisoning is an extremely serious condition, and one can only hope that with more education about the danger it represents, young people will learn to be more cautious about their behavior, and will not hesitate to ask for help if one of their friends shows signs of distress related to excessive alcoholic consumption.

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