Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Treatment and Duration

Alcohol poisoning is the common term for an alcohol overdose. This potentially fatal health crisis occurs when you consume enough alcohol to shut down the function of your body’s central nervous system. Knowledge of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning can potentially save your life or the life of a loved one, friend or stranger. Let’s take a look at these symptoms, as well as the duration of a poisoning event and the specifics of alcohol poisoning treatment.

Why Does Alcohol Poisoning Occur?

First, let’s begin with more detail on why alcohol poisoning occurs. When you drink, alcohol suppresses the normal rate of activity in your central nervous system, which includes your brain and spinal cord. If your rate of intake remains relatively low (roughly one drink an hour), your liver will offset this effect by eliminating alcohol from your body. However, if you drink at a higher rate, you will surpass your liver’s ability to compensate and alcohol will start building up in your bloodstream. If you drink at an extremely high rate, alcohol will accumulate in amounts large enough to interfere with the basic cell-to-cell communication that keeps your central nervous system functioning. This is the tipping point for the onset of alcohol poisoning.

Poisoning Symptoms

All of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning point to some sort of malfunction in your central nervous system. Key things to look for are:

  • A confused mental state
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Vomiting
  • A breathing rate of seven breaths per minute or less
  • Extended pauses (at least 10 seconds) between individual breaths
  • Hypothermia (a significant drop in body temperature)
  • Skin that turns pale or bluish
  • Unresponsive loss of consciousness

In advanced stages of poisoning, an affected person may go into a coma. The presence of any of these symptoms is an immediate call to action. Never wait for more symptoms to appear. Instead, seek help right away from emergency personnel. Even after someone loses consciousness, the level of alcohol in the bloodstream can continue to climb, and any delay in treatment may significantly increase the risks for a fatal outcome.

Duration of Alcohol Poisoning

The main factors in the duration of a poisoning event are the amount of alcohol consumed and the speed at which your liver can break that alcohol down and eliminate it from your system. Since the liver can eliminate roughly one standard drink’s worth of alcohol every hour, a poisoning episode can last for quite a long time before your central nervous system fully kicks in.

Alcohol Poisoning Treatment

It’s important to note that none of the folk remedies for treating alcohol poisoning will do you any good. Common examples of these remedies include:

  • Drinking lots of coffee
  • Showering in cold water
  • Walking around for extended amounts of time
  • “Sleeping off” your intoxication (an approach that could increase your chances of losing consciousness)

Standard alcohol poisoning treatment acknowledges the fact that it takes time to eliminate alcohol from your system. This means that doctors and emergency personnel focus on supporting your health while the elimination process is underway. Common treatment steps include:

  • Monitoring your vital signs
  • Keeping your airway open to avoid choking or breathing problems
  • Preventing dehydration with IV (intravenous) fluids
  • Preventing other potential complications with intravenous glucose and vitamins
  • Giving you supplemental oxygen

If the source of a poisoning episode is isopropyl alcohol or methanol, not the ethanol found in alcoholic beverages, you may undergo a process called hemodialysis. This process increases the speed of recovery by filtering alcohol from your bloodstream. Sources: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – Facts About Alcohol Overdose (or Alcohol Poisoning) Mayo Clinic: Alcohol Poisoning

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