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Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol can cause death directly by acting on those brain areas that control consciousness, respiration and heart rate. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can "turn off" these vital brain areas, resulting first in coma and then death.

In many cases, drinking too much alcohol will make you sick and you will stop drinking. Contrary to folk tales, getting sick is not from mixing drinks or drinking on an empty stomach, it is because specialized poison control cells in your brain detect danger -- too much alcohol -- and send a signal to your stomach to vomit. This is the brain's way of dealing with poisoning. Vomiting is an attempt to eliminate any unabsorbed alcohol. The logic is, if you can prevent any alcohol that's still in the stomach from getting into the blood supply, it may save your life. Eating before you drink will slow down the speed of intoxication but it is no guarantee that you won't get sick or die if you consume enough alcohol.

Whereas some people only vomit when they have consumed too much alcohol, other people just fall asleep (with or without vomiting) after they have consumed too much alcohol. In these people, death can follow in one of two ways: you may fall into a deep sleep and vomit while sleeping. What's the result? You choke on your own vomit because you are too intoxicated to wake up and clear out your airway. In other instances, you simply fall asleep and never wake up, because the concentration of alcohol is so high that the areas of your brain controlling life functions are so depressed that they stop functioning and so do you.

You should also know that a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. Even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. It is dangerous to assume the person will be fine by sleeping it off. Even if the victim lives, an alcohol overdose can lead to irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking (which often happens on a bet or a dare) is especially dangerous because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before becoming unconscious.

Common myths about sobering up include drinking black coffee, taking a cold bath or shower, sleeping it off, or walking it off. But these are just myths, and they don't work. The only thing that reverses the effects of alcohol is time-something you may not have if you are suffering from alcohol poisoning. And many different factors affect the level of intoxication of an individual, so it's difficult to gauge exactly how much is too much.

    Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning:

  • Unconscious or semiconsciousness.
  • Slow respiration (breaths) of eight or less per minute or lapses between breaths of more than eight seconds.
  • Cold, clammy, pale or bluish skin.
  • Mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused.
  • Vomiting.
  • Seizures.

    What Should I Do If I Suspect Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning?

  • Know the danger signals.
  • Do not wait for all symptoms to be present.
  • Be aware that a person who has passed out may die.
  • If there is any suspicion of an alcohol overdose, call 911 for help. Don't try to guess the level of drunkenness.

    What Can Happen to Someone With Alcohol Poisoning That Goes Untreated?

  • Victim chokes on his or her own vomit.
  • Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
  • Heart beats irregularly or stops.
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures.
  • Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.

Appropriate Action for Alcohol Poisoning:
If you encounter a person who exhibits one or more of the signs and symptoms CALL 911. Do what you would do in any medical emergency--call immediately. While waiting for 911 emergency transport, gently turn the intoxicated person on his/her side and maintain that position by placing a pillow in the small of the person's back. This is important to prevent aspiration (choking) should the person vomit. Stay with the person until medical help arrives. If a person appears to be "sleeping it off" it is important to remember that even though a person may be semi-conscious, alcohol already in the stomach may continue to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. The person's life may still be in danger. If you are having difficulty in determining whether an individual is acutely intoxicated, contact a health professional immediately--you cannot afford to guess.