I can still remember hearing a story from some friends about a classmate who was lying on the floor, purple, at a party. There were whispers about how a few people tried to help and how they were surprised he was okay. He was unresponsive at times and threw up while unconscious.
What likely happened to this classmate was a case of alcohol overdose.
The term “overdose” is one that most people are usually familiar with. When you hear it, you might think of substances like cocaine or meth, but did you know that you can experience an alcohol overdose, too? It’s more common than you might think.
Here in Indiana, over 23% of Hoosiers age 12 and older have reported binge drinking in the past year. While binge drinking can come with a variety of risks, one of them includes alcohol overdose. Our team here at Recovery Centers of America believes in offering transparent information about substance and alcohol use so people can be informed about their health and make the right decisions about quality addiction care. Today we will look specifically at alcohol overdose, the dangers it poses, and how to help if it happens to someone you know.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is another word for someone overdosing on alcohol.
Despite it being a legal substance, alcohol is a substance that is not healthy for the body. The liver works to process and filter it as you consume it. However, the liver can only handle so much alcohol at a time. If you continue to ingest alcohol before the liver is able to process it, the alcohol can start to go into other parts of the body, like the blood.
When this happens, your body can start to become overwhelmed by the toxins in your body. This is what leads to alcohol poisoning/overdose.
Who Is Most at Risk for Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning?
There are a couple of things that can increase your odds of experiencing alcohol poisoning. While this primarily occurs due to binge drinking, not everyone who binge drinks experiences alcohol poisoning. What tips over the scales then?
First, it’s important to note the differences between females and males regarding how alcohol is processed. An enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase is responsible for breaking down ethanol as it’s processed through the liver. Commonly, men are more likely to have a higher number of these enzymes than women. Because of that it usually takes more drinks for a man to overdose than a woman.
Next, a person’s experience with alcohol can impact their likelihood of alcohol poisoning. Those new to drinking, especially those who might be experimenting with alcohol still, can be at higher risk due to a lack of knowledge. Because they don’t know what high levels of intoxication feel like, they might not know when to stop drinking. On the other hand, those with a history of alcohol use can also be at risk because of tolerance. In order to feel their usual effects, they may need to drink more. This doesn’t mean their body is processing the alcohol any faster, though, and can still contribute to alcohol poisoning.
Finally, polysubstance use can significantly increase the odds of any form of overdose. Polysubstance use occurs whenever someone has more than one substance in their system at a time. This can be intentional or unintentional. When your body is trying to process more than one substance at a time, for example, alcohol and weed, it can make it that much easier for it to become overwhelmed.
The Dangers of Alcohol Overdose / Poisoning
On average, 6 people die in the United States every day due to alcohol poisoning, according to the CDC. Minus the potential for a fatality, alcohol poisoning can also lead to potential brain injury including long-term memory difficulties, stroke, and even seizures.
Additionally, as many people lose consciousness during alcohol poisoning, you have the chance of hurting yourself when you fall unconscious or throwing up while unconscious and choking.
What Happens to Your Body When You Have Alcohol Poisoning?
When the liver is unable to process the amount of alcohol being put into the body, this alcohol can start to impact other parts of the body. Because alcohol is a toxin to the body, this can start to negatively impact it. This in and of itself isn’t considered to be an overdose. An overdose, or alcohol poisoning, will only occur once the alcohol reaches a critical, toxic level within the body. This is when the effects really start to kick in.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Your brain is one of the most heavily impacted areas during an alcohol overdose. High levels of alcohol within the body can lead to the brain shutting down in critical areas. This includes areas that help control heart rate, body temperature, breathing, and more. When this starts to happen, if action isn’t taken, it can lead to death.
Even without alcohol poisoning, long-term alcohol use can lead to other impacts on the brain. It has been known to mess with people’s ability to form memories. It can also lead to an increased risk of stroke.
The Effects of Alcohol on Vital Organs
The liver is a very important part of our body’s processing system. With continued high amounts of alcohol use, or simply long-term alcohol use, your liver can start to become permanently damaged. This starts with scarring, or fibrosis, which is virtually undetectable until it further develops. As you build up more scar tissue, your liver can develop cirrhosis, which is a build-up of scar tissue in the liver. This reduces functionality and can eventually lead to total liver failure.
Additionally, with long-term use, you can develop things such as:
- Reduced bone density
- Acute pancreatitis
- Wasting disease
- Gut leakiness
- Microbial dysbiosis
- An increased risk of cancer
Other Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
If you notice someone experiencing symptoms like confusion, slurring words, the inability to control bowel movements, seizures, irregular breathing, blue-tinted skin, or an excess inability to control their coordination – it’s time to call for help.
Make sure you stay with the person while waiting for help to arrive. If they fall unconscious, put them in a recovery position, which is to roll them onto their side. If they’re awake, offer them small sips of water. Do not let them continue drinking alcohol, and do not let them sleep it off. Things like a cold shower or coffee will not reduce the effects of alcohol poisoning and can negatively impact a person instead.
At What Level Does Alcohol Poisoning Occur?
In order to understand the measurement of drinks that usually can lead to alcohol poisoning, it’s important to know what “one drink” consists of by these standards.
When discussing “one drink,” the standard includes one of the following:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
Any one of the above would be considered “one drink.”
In order for a session of drinking to be considered binge drinking, it must consist of 5 or more drinks for a male, or 4 or more for a female. This normally leads to a blood alcohol content (BAC) measurement of above 0.08, which is more than the legal limit for driving in Indiana and other states.
The exact amount of drinks needed to experience alcohol poisoning will vary from individual to individual based on things like height, weight, metabolism, sex, and even history of alcohol use. The more you drink in one sitting, however, the greater your risk becomes.
When to Seek Medical Attention for an Alcohol Overdose
If someone falls unconscious or has seizures during alcohol use, you should always seek medical help. Do not allow someone to “sleep off” an alcohol overdose if they were showing the signs of it. Between seizures, slowed heart rate, vomiting, and no reflexes, people can easily die in their sleep if they’re experiencing an overdose.
Overall, if you ever feel like you should seek medical help, trust your judgment. Everyone reacts differently to different levels of alcohol. Just because one person might be acting fine, doesn’t mean the other person doesn’t need help.
Recovery facilities can both help you through detoxing from alcohol, battling alcohol withdrawal, and providing well-rounded treatment to get you started on your healing journey. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, we all need it sometimes.
Getting Treatment For Alcohol Use Disorder
If you or a loved one is looking for recovery options from alcohol use, you’re in the right place. Recovery Centers of America is well-versed in helping clients along the road of recovery from alcohol use.
Our alcoholism treatment program is backed by clinical excellence. We strive to help our clients reach their healing goals. We know managing an alcohol use disorder isn’t your choice. Recovery is always possible, and we want to help.
Some of the ways we strive to help are not only through our treatment programs but by breaking down as many barriers to entry as possible. We’re in-network with most insurance, making recovery more accessible. We also provide transportation for up to 2 hours away from our facility, both there and back. With admissions open and available 24/7, and transfers between hospitals as painless as possible, we want to help make sure you have easy access to the care you need.
We offer a well-rounded variety of programs to help clients not only address alcohol use but work on other skills as well. Our primary program is called the Pathways Program. It’s an overall name for a program that actually has three different programs under the same umbrella. Each one was designed with different client experiences and needs in mind. All of our treatment options here are backed by clinical excellence, meaning our team continues to do research through studies and client feedback to improve our programs to fit client needs.
It’s not uncommon for substance use disorders to impact skills that used to be second nature, including everything from personal hygiene to nutrition. Alongside our Pathways program, we also offer family therapy, nutrition and wellness plans, and even workplace programs.
Not only that, but we strive to offer help to those who aren’t in our programs, too. We offer AA meetings for the whole community, and we have an extensive alumni network for previous clients. This allows people to continue to have access to support in a variety of ways when they need it.
How to prevent alcohol poisoning?
The best way to prevent alcohol poisoning is by being aware of how much you drink and setting a limit for yourself that you don’t exceed.
What are the symptoms of an alcohol overdose?
Common symptoms of an alcohol overdose include confusion, slurred words, clammy or blue-tinted skin, shallow breathing, difficulties maintaining consciousness, and even seizures.
What is the difference between alcohol poisoning and being drunk?
Being drunk is what occurs when you consume enough alcohol to be impacted by it. Alcohol poisoning is when you have so much alcohol that your body shuts down.