Alcohol Poisoning

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when the body has consumed more alcohol in a short time than it can process. The toxic effects of alcohol overwhelm the body, leading to severe impairment, increasingly dangerous medical effects, and if untreated, potentially death. Alcohol poisoning can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, weight, or alcohol tolerance. Because alcohol poisoning is caused by drinking too much, too fast, binge drinking (typically defined as five drinks for a man at one sitting or four for a woman), is especially dangerous. Alcohol poisoning is a major problem, with over 2,000 Americans dying every year as a result, or an average of 6 a day.

The risk of alcohol poisoning is generally measured by a person’s Blood Animal Concentration (BAC) level. BAC measures the percentage how much alcohol is in the bloodstream BAC levels are expressed as the weight of ethanol (drinking alcohol), in grams, in 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath. BAC levels can be determined from breath, blood, and urine tests. Because such factors as age, weight, gender, metabolism, and alcohol tolerance determine influence how quickly the body processes alcohol and the amount of alcohol it can tolerate, two people who have consumed the same amount of alcohol may have substantially different BAC levels. This also makes BAC a much better measure of intoxication than amount of alcohol consumed, as it more accurately represents actual impairment.  In most states, a BAC of .08 is considered legally intoxicated.

Alcohol poisoning is incredibly serious and fast acting. An individual can go from not having any drinks to a life-threatening situation in a matter of hours, possibly even less. If you are concerned that you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol poisoning, you need to seek immediate medical attention.

How Does Alcohol Poisoning Develop?

The body metabolizes (breaks down) alcohol primarily in the liver. However, the body can only process alcohol so quickly. While everyone is slightly different, as a rule, the body can process .5 ounces of alcohol every hour. That is roughly how much alcohol is in one shot, one beer, or one glass of wine.

If an individual consumes more alcohol before the body has had a chance to break it down, that alcohol remains in their bloodstream, increasing their BAC. The more alcohol is consumed, the higher the BAC rises. This is especially true when alcohol is consumed quickly. As the level of alcohol in the bloodstream rises, the greater the impact the alcohol has on the many body systems it encounters. With every additional drink, the level of impairment increases.

Impairment generally begins with mild feelings of warmth and euphoria. Gradually, inhibitions are lowered and moods become more pronounced. Vision, speech, reaction time, decision making, hearing, memory, balance and more become increasingly impaired. Eventually, all are so impaired that the individual is essentially incapable of functioning. Even walking a few steps becomes impossible. The individual will become what is commonly known as a “sloppy drunk.” At some point, the body will no longer be capable of handling the alcohol, and it will attempt to purge itself of the toxic chemical. Nausea begins, followed by vomiting. The next stage is generally a “blackout,” where a person is no longer aware of what they are doing, are not in control at all, and will probably not remember anything the next day.

There comes a point here the body cannot handle the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. In most cases, the person will lose consciousness and pass out. However, their body is still processing the alcohol, and they may continue to vomit. If a person vomits while unconscious, it may fill up and block their air passages, potentially causing them to die from choking. If a person consumes so much alcohol that it overwhelms their body, the body may begin to shut down. The individual may go into a coma, begin to experience permanent brain damage, and potentially die of numerous conditions, in particular cardiac arrest and dehydration.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Confusion or stupor
  • Coma
  • Unresponsiveness or incoherency
  • Vomiting, often uncontrollable, especially if while unconscious
  • Seizures
  • Irregular or slow breathing (Fewer than 8 breaths per minute or 10 seconds or more in between breaths)
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Pale or bluish skin color