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Aside from the long-term health consequences of heavy drinking, it carries some immediate health risks too. Chief among these is the risk of alcohol poisoning.

In 2018 alone, 530 people died from alcohol poisoning in the UK. [1] Raising awareness about this issue could help to reduce this number.

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is caused by drinking a very large amount of alcohol in a limited space of time (otherwise known as binge drinking). It is a very serious, and potentially life-threatening condition.

Someone suffering from alcohol poisoning may experience changes in their heart rate (BPM), breathing, gag reflex and body temperature. In extreme cases, alcohol poisoning can trigger a coma and death.

What happens to your body when you have alcohol poisoning?

If you drink a lot of alcohol during a short space of time, your liver is unable to process it quickly enough. This means that a large amount of alcohol enters the bloodstream.

In big enough quantities, this alcohol can prevent parts of your brain from working properly.

Since alcohol is a depressant, it slows the brain and nervous system down. This can be very dangerous since the brain and nervous system control the majority of what goes on in the body.

During alcohol poisoning, one of the biggest dangers is that breathing and the gag reflex may be slowed down or even stopped altogether. This is because alcohol depresses the nerves that control these involuntary actions.

When these nerves stop working correctly, the body stops performing these actions. Therefore, people who are experiencing alcohol poisoning have a high risk of suffocation and choking.

This risk is made worse by the fact that alcohol irritates the stomach, making people more likely to vomit. If someone who is suffering from alcohol poisoning vomits, they may choke on their own vomit unless they are given proper medical care.

Another danger is that someone may seem to be in a stable condition during a case of alcohol poisoning when in fact they are not.

Blood alcohol content (BAC) may carry on going up for a period of around forty minutes even after someone has stopped drinking.

With more and more alcohol entering the bloodstream, a person’s condition may worsen even when they are asleep or passed out. This underlines the need for seeing a medical professional as soon as possible after an alcohol overdose.

What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

There are several signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

These include:

  • Bluish skin (Cyanosis) or pale skin
  • Confusion
  • Irregular breathing (over 10 seconds between breaths)
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Passing out (unconsciousness)
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Slower responses (e.g. gag reflex)
  • Slurred speech
  • Swallowing reflexes
  • Vomiting

What to do in an alcohol poisoning emergency

Even if someone does not have all of the symptoms listed above, they may still have alcohol poisoning. Given how dangerous this condition is, you must act quickly in an emergency of this sort.

If you think that someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, call 999 (or your local emergency number) and ask for an ambulance. This is absolutely essential because someone with this condition needs to get medical help as soon as possible.

If the person on the phone asks for information – such as how much the person drank, and how recently – try to give it to them as accurately as possible. This will help them to deliver the best possible care.

While you wait for the ambulance, stay with the person, even if they are unconscious. As mentioned above, a person’s BAC may increase even after they have stopped drinking.

Just because someone is asleep or unconscious does not necessarily mean they are safe. There is still a risk of asphyxiation or choking on vomit.

If they are unconscious, try to get them into the recovery position. This will help them to keep breathing.

If the person starts vomiting, try to get them sitting up, if possible. If they can’t sit up then at least get them to lie on one side. This reduces the risk of choking.

Finally, make sure you keep the person warm. Alcohol can make people feel warmer than they are (the so-called ‘beer jacket’ or ‘booze jacket’) so there is a risk of hypothermia.

And don’t forget to give them some water if they are conscious. Dehydration is another major risk of alcohol poisoning.

What not to do in an alcohol poisoning emergency

Below, we outline six steps to avoid an alcohol poisoning emergency:

  1. Do not give someone who is suffering from alcohol poisoning a cup of coffee. This may help with a hangover but it definitely will not help with alcohol poisoning. Alcohol dehydrates the body; so does coffee. When someone is already critically dehydrated, the last thing you want to do is dehydrate them even further. This can be seriously dangerous. Extreme dehydration can cause brain damage
  2. Do not leave someone alone just because they are asleep or unconscious. You need to stay with the person because the amount of alcohol in the blood may still be rising and they may choke on their vomit
  3. Do not make them sick, or encourage them to make themselves sick. Sometimes people who are very drunk will make themselves sick to sober themselves up. In a case of alcohol poisoning, this is extremely risky. A person in this state may not have a functioning gag reflex, so they could choke on their vomit
  4. Do not run them a cold shower. Again, this is something people do to sober themselves up but for someone who has alcohol poisoning, this can be dangerous. Alcohol lowers your body temperature. Putting someone with a low body temperature in a cold shower can cause hypothermia
  5. Do not try to make them walk around to sober them up. Large amounts of alcohol affect your balance, so this could lead to trips or other accidents. The best thing for them to do is to sit down or lie down until the ambulance arrives
  6. Finally, although it may seem like an obvious point, do not let them drink any more alcohol. When someone is that drunk they may not even realise how bad their condition is. Adding more alcohol to the bloodstream could risk brain damage

What happens if alcohol poisoning goes untreated?

Some complications may arise if an alcohol overdose goes untreated:

  • The person may choke on their vomit
  • Their breathing may slow down or stop altogether
  • They may experience hypothermia
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) may trigger seizures
  • Their heartbeat may become irregular or completely stop
  • Extreme dehydration may cause brain damage, seizures or death
  • Brain damage can be caused by heavy drinking

This list of complications forms a strong argument for calling an ambulance if you have even the slightest suspicion that someone may be experiencing alcohol poisoning. The consequences of this condition being left untreated are very dangerous.

Who is most at risk of alcohol poisoning?

Every drinker will have a different level of risk when it comes to alcohol poisoning. This is because different factors determine how quickly and to what extent alcohol can be metabolised by the body.

The less alcohol processed by the liver, the more enters the bloodstream, and the higher the risk of alcohol poisoning becomes.

This is made even more complicated by the fact that risk factors can vary day-to-day.

Some of the risk factors listed below depend on things that change from one day to the next, such as how recently you ate before you started drinking, and the kind of drinks you’ve been drinking.

For instance, a person who normally has a high tolerance but hasn’t eaten for a while and has been mixing their drinks may have a much higher risk of alcohol poisoning than normal.

Here are the main risk factors for alcohol poisoning:

  • The percentage of alcohol in your drinks
  • The amount of alcohol consumption
  • The time it took to consume the alcohol
  • Whether you’re combining alcohol with other drugs
  • Whether you’ve eaten recently
  • Your overall health
  • Your size and weight
  • Your tolerance level
  • The condition of your liver

How to prevent alcohol poisoning

As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure.

Alcohol poisoning is incredibly dangerous and ought to be avoided at all costs. The best way to do so is of course abstinence. But if you’re going to drink, here are some tips to help you drink more moderately and prevent alcohol poisoning.

  • The government guidelines in the UK are to drink less than 14 units a week for men and [2] Try not to go above these recommended allowances
  • Drink a glass of water between each alcoholic drink. This does two things: firstly, it slows your rate of alcohol consumption, and secondly, it prevents dehydration
  • Limit yourself to two alcoholic drinks a night. This gives you a clearly defined set of boundaries
  • Lining your stomach can be a good way to slow down alcohol absorption. Try eating a meal before or at the same time as drinking
  • Be careful with products that contain alcohol. Sometimes children can suffer from alcohol poisoning after accidentally ingesting a product which contains alcohol. Due to their very low tolerance, this can be serious. Try to keep these products out of reach

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this informational page has helped you to understand alcohol poisoning in a bit more detail. As mentioned at the start of this article, there are still hundreds of deaths from alcohol poisoning annually in the UK. Through proper treatment and care, this number can be reduced.




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