The long term consequences of drinking large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can be devastating on the body and mind. However, it is not necessary for people to develop a long-term addiction for them to suffer the consequences of alcohol. Simply drinking to excess on one occasion can be enough to put people in the Emergency Room or worse. Alcohol poisoning is a potentially lethal outcome of overindulgence. If an individual begins to experience the symptoms of alcohol poisoning it is important that they receive proper medical care.
Alcohol poisoning is said to have occurred when the blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches a certain point. The BAC is not only determined by the amount drunk but also by other factors such as:
* The speed at which the drinks were consumed
* The alcoholic content of the drink
* The presence of food in the stomach which can slow down absorption
* The sex of the individual
* Body weight
* Different medications can interfere with alcohol absorption
BAC refers to the percentage of the blood that is made up of alcohol. The BAC at which alcohol poisoning occurs can differ greatly between individuals, but a BAC greater than 0.20 (this means that alcohol accounts for twenty per cent of the blood content) means that the individual is at risk. If the level is greater than 0.4 than death is extremely likely. Individuals can die at lower BAC levels if they become unconscious and choke on their own vomit.
If the blood alcohol level becomes too high it begins to severely impair the body’s ability to function properly. The effects of this type of poisoning include:
* The high BAC affects the central nervous system so that physiological functions such as heartbeat and respiratory rate slow down to dangerous levels. The respiratory system can become so suppressed by alcohol that the individual may stop breathing.
* The body reacts to the toxic amount of alcohol by vomiting.
* Once the BAC goes above 0.2 the individual becomes increasingly drowsy. They can eventually become unconscious to such an extent that they can’t be woken up. A BAC of 0.35 is the equivalent of a general anesthetic.
* Once the individual reaches this level of intoxication they are highly uncoordinated and unable to make good decisions. This means they are at risk of serious injury due to accidents.
* Excessive alcohol can interfere with Gluconeogenesis. This means that blood sugar levels can fall to dangerous levels. This is known as hypoglycaemia and it can lead to coma.
The individual who has suffered alcohol poisoning can exhibit a number of symptoms including:
* Agitation and increased aggression
* A fall in body temperature
* Slowed down breathing to less than eight breaths a minute
* Breathing may be noisy
* There may be dilated pupils
* Incontinence of urine or feces
* Clammy skin
* Evidence of hypoxia including blue skin or lips
* Evidence of hypoglycaemia
* Irregular heartbeat
The common wisdom that drunks should just be allowed to sleep it off can be lethal advice. The individual is at risk of aspiration. This means that they may vomit while unconscious and this will end up in their lungs. If this happens then they may drown from the aspiration. When an individual is at risk of alcohol poisoning it is vital that they are put on their side and observed. If they begin losing consciousness then an ambulance will be needed.
Encouraging the individual to walk it off or drink coffee can also be bad advice. If their coordination is affected it will mean that they are likely to have an accident. By drinking coffee they may further upset their stomach which will increase the risk of vomiting.
Even if an individual only appears mildly drunk they can still be at risk of alcohol poisoning. This is because there may still be more alcohol in their stomach that hasn’t yet been absorbed. Such an individual may fall asleep but their BAC level is continuing to rise.
The required treatment for alcohol poisoning will depend on the severity of the symptoms. If the respiratory rate is too low it may be necessary to commence oxygen therapy. It may also be necessary to commence intravenous fluids if there has been excessive vomiting or fluid loss. Those individuals with low blood sugar levels may require a glucose infusion. The patient will need to be carefully monitored until the effects of the alcohol have worn off.
In some instances it may also be necessary to pump the stomach to remove any alcohol that hasn’t yet been absorbed. This is more properly referred to as gastric lavage and it involves passing a tube through the mouth and into the stomach. If the individual is unconscious it is usually necessary to intubate them so that any stomach contents do not end up in the lungs.
Sometimes the BAC is so dangerously high that the individual will require hemodialysis. This is more likely if the person has been drinking something like rubbing alcohol. Hemodialysis is more commonly used by people who have kidney problems, but it can also help rid the blood of excessively high amounts of alcohol.
Preventing alcohol poisoning is not difficult if people drink sensibly. It means:
* Drinking alcohol at recommended levels. Not more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks a day for men. Here a drink is a standard beer or a glass of wine. It is possible to drink significantly more than this and not experience alcohol poisoning, but it is best to only drink at safe levels and there can never be a problem.
* Drink alcohol at a slow pace. The best advice is to have a non-alcohol drink in-between every alcohol drink. Never drink more than one drink in any one hour period.
* Never drink on an empty stomach.
* Don’t combine alcohol with illegal or prescription drug use.
* Those people who are on medication should always ensure that it is permissible for them to drink alcoholic beverages.
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