Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths each year. This exceeds the number of deaths caused by cancer, heart disease, and stroke combined!
Binge drinking is one of the most dangerous forms of alcohol consumption, and it can result in short-term and long-term health problems. People who engage in binge drinking are more likely to develop liver diseases, cancer, alcohol use disorder, and other negative health complications, including alcohol poisoning. This article discusses the harmful long-term effects of alcohol poisoning and how to prevent and treat it.
What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning also called alcohol overdose, is a serious, sometimes fatal, consequence of binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as consuming large amounts of alcohol within a short period of time. This pattern of heavy drinking equates to consuming four or more alcoholic drinks (women) or five or more alcoholic drinks (men) within two hours for the average adult. Due to their propensity for binge drinking and heavy drinking, adolescents and young adults who consume alcohol may be more susceptible to alcohol poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of six people die each day in the U.S. due to alcohol poisoning.
As the stomach and small intestines digest and absorb the alcohol, it enters the bloodstream and increases the blood alcohol level. The liver metabolizes the alcohol, but when the blood alcohol levels are high, it cannot remove the toxins quickly enough. The excess alcohol in the bloodstream can then negatively affect parts of the brain that control vital functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. As the blood alcohol level rises, these negative effects become more severe and even fatal.
How Much Is Too Much Alcohol?
There are many factors that can influence the risk of alcohol poisoning, such as age, gender, weight, sensitivity to alcohol (tolerance), how quickly they have been drinking, how much they have eaten, and their general health. In alcohol poisoning, blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels can vary from 0.10% to 0.40%, with a BAC between 0.30% and 0.40% indicating a potentially life-threatening level. Symptoms may include confusion, vomiting, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, and respiratory arrest at this level. Blood alcohol concentration over 0.40% is regarded as potentially fatal.
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Recognizing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning can mean the difference between life and death for you or someone you love. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), some of the common signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Mental confusion
- Difficulty remaining conscious
- Slow breathing or irregular breathing
- Slow heart rate
- Clammy skin
- Dulled responses (such as no gag reflex)
- Low body temperature (hypothermia)
Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that can lead to permanent brain damage or death if left untreated. Therefore, call 911 if you suspect someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose. If the person is unconscious, do not leave them alone until emergency medical responders arrive. In the meantime, place the unconscious person on their side. As alcohol poisoning can suppress a person’s gag reflex, they can choke and possibly die if they vomit while unconscious and lying on their back.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Poisoning
Anyone who consumes too much alcohol too quickly is at risk of developing alcohol poisoning. This is particularly true of individuals who engage in binge drinking. Other risk factors for alcohol poisoning include:
- Body size – A person’s height and weight determine how quickly their body digests and absorbs alcohol. Someone with a smaller body size may feel the effects of alcohol quicker than a person with a larger body size.
- Alcohol tolerance – A person with a high tolerance would feel less affected by alcohol and may drink more as a result.
- Overall health condition – Having medical conditions such as diabetes increases your risk of having an alcohol overdose.
- Polysubstance abuse – Combining alcohol with other substances such as opioids or sedative-hypnotics can increase your risk of an alcohol overdose.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Poisoning
Prompt treatment can help prevent the life-threatening health complications associated with an alcohol overdose. However, a severe alcohol overdose can cause seizures, resulting in permanent brain damage if oxygen to the brain is cut off. When the brain begins to fail, it can cause a cascade of other organ failures, such as heart, liver, and stomach failure, leading to severe health problems or early death.
How Is Alcohol Poisoning Treated?
Alcohol poisoning is typically treated in an emergency room, where the medical staff will monitor the person’s vital signs, including their heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature until their blood alcohol content gradually drops. However, if the person develops more serious clinical symptoms, such as seizures, the treatment provider may provide additional treatments, including:
- An intravenous drop to manage blood glucose, hydration, and vitamin levels.
- Supplementary oxygen is administered through a nasal mask or tube.
- A urine catheter if they become incontinent.
- Medications are administered to stop seizures.
- Stomach pumping to clear the stomach of toxins.
In severe cases of alcohol poisoning, if the kidneys are unable to filter the alcohol from the blood, physicians may initiate dialysis.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
After a person recovers from alcohol poisoning, it may be an ideal time to talk to them about their problematic drinking habits and encourage them to seek treatment. For some, having family members and friends gather for an intervention may prove helpful. While for others, professional intervention may be necessary.
Treatment for alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder often begins with a medical detox to help patients go through alcohol withdrawal safely and comfortably. During medical detox, patients will be under constant medical care and supervision so that the treatment providers can intervene when the symptoms get severe. Then, patients will be recommended to follow an inpatient or outpatient treatment program to help address the underlying root causes of addiction and learn the skills and strategies needed to navigate life after rehab.
Most inpatient programs combine counseling and behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). They also provide access to mutual support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is a popular support group that offers group sessions and teaches individuals how to achieve and maintain sobriety. Other support groups for alcohol-dependent individuals include SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and moderation management.
Call us at Futures Recovery Healthcare if you or someone you love just experienced alcohol poisoning and would like to get help for their problem drinking. At Futures Recovery Healthcare, our purpose-designed medical detox and inpatient treatment programs help patients begin to recover from alcohol dependence successfully. We focus on individualized treatment to give all our patients a chance to live a healthier life.