Alcohol Poisoning: What To Do

Alcohol poisoning or acute alcohol intoxication is a serious consequence of drinking a toxic amount of alcohol in a short period.

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What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a severe and life-threatening effect of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol quickly. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can rapidly affect one’s heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and gag reflex. These can lead to coma and even death. Alcohol poisoning is serious and needs prompt medical attention.

Alcohol poisoning by the numbers

In the United States, at least six people die from alcohol poisoning each day. About 76% of all alcohol poisoning cases are among adults with an age range of 35 to 64 years. About 76% of all deaths from alcohol poisoning occur among men.  

Causes of alcohol poisoning

Binge drinking or drinking alcohol in excessive amounts over a short period is the major cause of alcohol poisoning.

In women, binge drinking happens upon taking four drinks within two hours.
In men, binge drinking happens upon consuming more than five alcoholic drinks within two hours.

In terms of amount, one drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 9 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol), and 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol). For hard liquor, one drink measures 1.5 ounces of 40-percent alcohol.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

The major signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Cold, clammy, pale or bluish skin
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slow or irregular breathing

The other signs and symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Low body temperature
  • Stupor (conscious but unresponsive)

If alcohol poisoning is left untreated, the following can happen:

  • Slow and irregular breathing, which may stop eventually
  • Choking on vomit due to reduced gag reflex
  • Low blood sugar, which may lead to seizures
  • Slow and irregular heart rate, which may stop eventually
  • Severe dehydration from vomiting may cause seizures, coma, and death.

What to do in case of alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a severe condition and immediate medical treatment is important. In the case of alcohol poisoning, it is important that you follow the following steps:

  • Stay calm and make sure that the patient remains conscious and responsive.
  • Keep the patient warm. Alcohol lowers the body temperature, which may lead to hypothermia.
  • Let the patient lie on side (recovery position) and not on back.
  • Keep monitoring the patient’s breathing, pulse, and level of responsiveness.
  • Call 911 for an emergency response.
  • Before touching the patient, tell him/her what you are going to do. Observe for any signs of aggression.
  • Do not give food, drink, or any medicine.
  • Do not let the patient walk, take a shower, or drink coffee to avoid any possible accident. Alcohol is a depressant that slows the functions of the brain. It also affects the sense of balance.
  • If the patient loses consciousness or responsiveness, try to open the airway and check for breathing.

If the patient became unconscious, the following steps should be considered:

  • Ask for medical assistance right away.
  • If the patient is unresponsive but still breathing, try to open the airway.
  • Check for breathing.
  • If the patient is breathing, put him or her in a recovery position.

If the patient is unresponsive and not breathing:

  • Perform the same steps as above. In addition, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by a trained person may also help to regain the vital parameters of the patient.
  • Give chest compressions. Put the heel of one hand on the breastbone in the central part of the chest. Push hard and fast.
  • Repeat the chest compressions for 30 times.
  • After one cycle of CPR, give two rescue breaths.
  • Give 30 chest compressions and two rescue breaths continuously until help arrives or as long as you can.
  • If the patient starts breathing, put him in the recovery position.

Alcohol poisoning is a severe and a life-threatening condition. It is vital that the patient receives immediate medical attention and the first responder calls the emergency services.

Further Reading

Last Updated: May 2, 2018

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