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With the popularity of alcohol throughout our society, it can be easy to forget how dangerous it can be when used incorrectly. The majority of people will responsibly consume alcohol; however, it can become a problem that has gotten away from us in short order.

Alcohol abuse can lead to a variety of life-threatening complications, and addiction to it is a serious medical condition. When consumed in excess, it can even lead to poisoning due to the body’s inability to filter such large amounts of toxins efficiently.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

On the surface, alcohol poisoning is a result of the ingestion of too much alcohol in too short a period. Unfortunately, as one begins to examine this condition it becomes clear that there are far too many variables for it to be presented in such a cut and dry manner.

When a person consumes alcohol, their blood alcohol content, or BAC, will increase. As the BAC increases, an individual will begin to experience increased symptoms of impairment. The impairment experienced by an individual who has consumed alcohol is due to the inhibition of the interactions that the brain has with the different systems within the body.

The brain becomes unable to properly control how the body is breathing, regulate the body temperature, and will even begin to lose control over the heart rate. If an individual who is experiencing alcohol poisoning does not receive proper treatment, the condition can be fatal, or result in permanent injury.

Understanding Blood Alcohol Content

The rating most people will be familiar with when it comes to alcohol will be the legal limit for driving. Each country sets its regulations regarding the legal limits to operate a motor vehicle. In the U.K., except Scotland, the legal limits are defined as follows:

  • 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood taken in a blood test;
  • 107 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of urine taken in a urine test; or
  • 35 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of breath as determined using a breathalyser [1]

In Scotland, the legal limits are even lower. Each person will have to take into account their size, gender, how much they’ve eaten, and what type of alcohol they are consuming to determine whether or not they have reached that limit.

While this limit is useful for policing impaired driving, it is not particularly useful to a person who is out for a night of drinking. While at a pub, it is not easy to determine at what concentration the alcohol has accumulated in your blood.

You will also be unable to feel the effects of the alcohol that you consume immediately, and your BAC can continue to rise for a time after your last drink due to the absorption of the alcohol still in your digestive system.

What is a Unit of Alcohol?

Since it is very difficult to measure the impact of a drink from one individual to the next, the measurement of a unit of alcohol was developed to give those consuming alcohol a guideline to determine their level of intoxication.

Before we can calculate the number of units of alcohol in a drink, it important that we understand how alcohol by volume or ABV is calculated. This is the amount of pure alcohol found in the total volume of liquid. This amount is represented as a percentage of total volume.

To calculate the number of units in an alcoholic beverage, you take the ABV and multiply that by the volume of the drink in millilitres. Then you divide the result by 1000, and you are left with the units of alcohol in the drink.

How Does Alcohol Poisoning Develop?

How your body metabolizes alcohol will play yet another role in determining the point at which you become impaired or enter the dangerous territory of alcohol poisoning. Different people have metabolisms that run at different rates.

Given the same amount of alcohol, one person may have none remaining in their blood after three hours, while another may still have a traceable amount circulating. These differences can result in two people that have consumed the same amount of alcohol having vastly different readings when it comes time for a breathalyser, or determining whether they are in danger of alcohol poisoning.

As you can see, there are too many variables to consider when you are trying to determine if a person has consumed too much alcohol. As a result, when you are assessing a person to see if they are experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning, you’re going to want to check for a variety of symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

The following list of symptoms should be used as a guide to determine if you or someone that you are with are showing signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Vomiting
  • Inability to keep down fluids
  • A change in skin tone to a slightly bluish hue
  • Extreme dehydration
  • Breathing that becomes erratic
  • A loss of awareness
  • Confusion
  • An inability to speak without slurring their words
  • Unresponsiveness in individuals who appear otherwise awake
  • Lack of coordination
  • Becoming unconscious [2]

In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can result in brain damage or can even become fatal. If you believe someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, make sure that you call 999 or emergency assistance as soon as possible.

How Common is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is far more prevalent than most people suspect. In fact, during the 2018/2019 reporting period, the NHS reported that there were approximately 358,000 admissions to hospital as a result of alcohol consumption. There were 5,698 deaths in 2018 that were specifically attributed to alcohol. Alcohol poisoning is most commonly a result of binge drinking.

One may expect that alcohol poisoning was mostly an issue for young people and would expect that the age-group most affected by this condition would be in the twenty to forty age group. Data points to the age group between fifty-five and sixty-five as being the highest risk group in both men and women. [3]

As such alcohol poisoning is an issue that can affect anyone at all ages, and you must be vigilant if you discover someone exhibiting the symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning is prevalent throughout our communities, and it can strike anyone, at any age. Those who are struggling with an addiction to alcohol, or find they have difficulty cutting back should know that they can seek help.

How Much Alcohol Does it Take to Cause Alcohol Poisoning?

As discussed above, this will vary from person to person. There are some general guidelines that can be followed however to make an educated guess as to your risk of developing alcohol poisoning.

The general timeline is as follows:

In this range, an individual will experience the usual side effects of the consumption of alcohol. They will experience a heightened heart rate, increased temperature, and perhaps some light-headedness.

In general, in this range, long term effects would not be expected, and most social drinkers would stop drinking in this range.

Stopping in this range would negate the risk of developing alcohol poisoning in most individuals.

It is in this range that an individual will enter a potentially dangerous situation. Reaction times will be measurably slower than those of the individual when they are not inebriated.

Further, they will have slurred speech, and are likely to have issues with their vision for the duration of their body removing the alcohol from their bloodstream.

As the levels of alcohol have reached levels that the liver can no longer remove during a usual overnight period, the individual will most likely wake up with a hangover.

It is at this point that mots individuals would be advised to stop consuming additional alcohol to reduce their risk of possible alcohol poisoning.

Coordination at this level of intoxication will be adversely affected. An individual may become dizzy, or even drowsy and the level of alcohol in the person's bloodstream will start to reach toxic levels.

The body will react by beginning to quickly expel urine, to quickly reduce the level of oxygen in the bloodstream, and it is quite likely that the individual will experience a severe headache the next day due to dehydration.

Complications may also arise in the digestive system and result in a variety of issues.

At this range, the individual is at a high risk of developing alcohol poisoning. This risk becomes exponentially greater the faster the twelve units of alcohol are consumed.

If a person were to consume twelve units of alcohol over two days, they will most likely be fine though quite intoxicated. If a person were to consume this in five hours however, an emergency room visit may very well be in their future.

At these levels, alcohol will begin to interfere with a person's autonomic nervous system and will begin to cause issues with breathing and the heart rate.

It is quite likely that an individual who has consumed this much alcohol will lose consciousness. At this point, it would be wise to seek emergency assistance, as it is very likely that the person is suffering from alcohol poisoning.


How Can I Tell the Difference Between a Hangover and Alcohol Poisoning?

A hangover in and of itself can feel as though your body is on the edge of death. Know that hangovers will pass, and they generally do not represent a medical emergency. However, if the individual suffering from a hangover is exhibiting the signs of alcohol poisoning, especially a blueish hue, or they are unresponsive, you must seek medical assistance for them as they are experiencing alcohol poisoning.

As long as you are responsive, able to keep fluids and food in your stomach, are not confused, and your breathing is steady, it is most likely that you are experiencing the effects of a hangover, and it will not lead to lasting damage.

How is Alcohol Poisoning Diagnosed?

Alcohol poisoning will usually be suspected by first responders based on the situation that they first encounter a patient in, and what is relayed to them by family and friends. However actual diagnosis is made through blood or urine tests once the patient has reached the hospital or emergency facility.

Which Factors Increase the Risk of Alcohol Poisoning?

There are a variety of conditions that may result in alcohol poisoning occurring faster than it otherwise normally would. These include:

  • Never drink on an empty stomach, and ensure that you have eaten enough during the day
  • Take breaks in between drinks. Chugging beers, and taking shots quickly will cause your blood alcohol levels to spike, but it will not be immediate. If you take a break you will allow your blood alcohol level to catch up, and you can make a responsible decision as to whether or not you should consume additional alcohol
  • Drinking alcohol takes getting used to. While you are getting used to your limit, increase that limit slowly, such that you don’t blow past it and end up in a scenario where you are far more intoxicated than you are used to
  • Watch for any medications that you are taking having an interaction with alcohol. These warnings are there for a reason, and if your doctor or pharmacist has told you not to mix your pills with alcohol, you should heed their advice
  • Once you are impaired, stop. Take responsibility for yourself, and ensure that when you’ve had enough, you say no to more. If you are with others that are drinking to excess, perhaps letting them know that they don’t need to drink anymore will allow them to stop drinking without feeling the peer pressure to continue. [4]

How Long does it Take for Alcohol to Get Out of your System?

The length of time that it takes an individual’s liver to remove one unit of alcohol from the blood will vary from individual to individual. In general, the NHS estimates that approximately one unit of alcohol can be removed from the blood every hour. [5]

This means that if you consume five units of alcohol within an hour, in general, a healthy liver will remove that alcohol within the next five hours. However, individual metabolisms and the health of your liver will determine how closely that approximation matches reality.

As heavy drinking is known to cause liver damage, if an individual has long been a heavy drinker, it may take longer for the alcohol to be removed from the blood.

What are the Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning?

Those suffering from alcohol poisoning face several risks. According to the NHS, these include:

  • Breathing may suddenly stop
  • The individual may choke
  • Severe dehydration which carries a variety of its health concerns such as brain damage
  • Low blood sugar may result in seizures
  • Damage to the digestive tract due to vomiting
  • Heart attack
  • Hypothermia

When Should I Seek Help?

If you are alone, and you believe that you may be suffering from alcohol poisoning, you should dial 999 or your local emergency number immediately. You may lose consciousness and no longer be able to ask for help.

If you are with someone that you believe may be suffering from alcohol poisoning, use the symptoms provided above as a guideline. If these symptoms are present, especially symptoms such as the bluish hue to the individual’s skin, or erratic breathing, you should request medical assistance immediately.

How is Alcohol Poisoning Treated in the Hospital?

Depending on the severity of alcohol poisoning, the NHS indicates that some or all the following treatments will be conducted in hospital [6]:

  • Catheterization to drain urine so that the individual does not wet themselves
  • An IV or intravenous drip to replenish fluid, vitamin, and sugar levels
  • Intubation for those who are experiencing airway issues

How Can I Help Someone Who is Suffering from Alcohol Poisoning?

After you have reached out to emergency services, you should do the following to help the individual until help arrives:

  • Try and keep the individual in a seated position, and if possible conscious. Keep them talking, and upright, this will help to make sure that the airway is clear, and that the individual will keep breathing as well as possible
  • Get them to drink water without inducing vomiting. If they are not able to drink the water without vomiting this is not necessary
  • If you are unable to get the individual to remain conscious, place them in the recovery position, and monitor to ensure that they are breathing properly. The recovery position is when you place an individual on their side, the arm against the ground should be placed straight up above their head, and the other arm should be placed out in front of them to prop them up. In this position, it is much less likely that they will begin choking on their vomit
  • Ensure that the individual is warm, and cover them with blankets
  • Stay with the individual and monitor them for any changes

What Shouldn’t I Do for Someone Suffering from Alcohol Poisoning?

It is quite likely that an individual in the throws of alcohol poisoning may become drowsy, and they may believe it’s time to just let them sleep it off.

No matter how bad they may wish you don’t, it’s imperative that you contact emergency services, and wait with them until help arrives. While they may be fine, it is never worth the risks if the symptoms of alcohol poisoning are present. [7]

What Should I Do After I have Alcohol Poisoning?

If this was a one-off situation, there may be nothing left for you to do unless you suffered long-term damage. However, if this isn’t the first time this has happened, you may want to consider whether or alcohol has become an issue for you in your life.

If you need help, you’re not alone. There are many resources out there to help you overcome the problem. Visit our alcohol addiction page to find out more.

Find The Help You Need Today

At Rehab 4 Addiction, we have decades’ worth of experience in advising and guiding those affected by alcohol.

To find out more or ask for help from our team, call us today on 0800 140 4690.

References

[1] https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/

[2] https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-alcohol/

[3] https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-alcohol/2020/part-4

[4] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-poisoning/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3959903/

[6] https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/how-long-does-alcohol-stay-in-your-blood/

[7] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/