Recognizing Alcohol Poisoning and How to Help

Posted on October 1st, 2014
Posted in Binge Drinking

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person ingests too much alcohol in a brief amount of time. The U.S. records roughly 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning every year, and alcohol overdose kills one American every week.


Each drink of alcohol a person has raises the amount of alcohol in their blood. This is known as the blood alcohol content (BAC) level. The government has set .08 percent as the BAC limit with which a person may safely drive a car. Anything over that amount is considered enough to cause sufficient impairment in judgment and reflexes as to make driving unsafe. But overdrinking can have other consequences as well.

Flooding the Filter

The liver, whose primary function is to act as a filter for blood, can process around one unit of alcohol (equivalent to a 5-ounce glass of wine) per hour, although this is rough estimate and varies by gender and weight. When a person drinks more than their liver can process, the excess alcohol travels unhindered in the bloodstream. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short span of time (binge drinking) is particularly dangerous.

Even after the person stops drinking, alcohol will continue to enter the bloodstream for more than half an hour. This is why a person should stop drinking well before they feel the effects of alcohol.

People who have consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol may:

  • Appear confused
  • Feel cold and clammy (because their body temperature may drop)
  • Be awake but incoherent
  • Black out
  • Vomit
  • Exhibit abnormal breathing (usually very slow and shallow)

During this time of troubled breathing several serious problems may occur. The drinker may vomit as the body tries to expel the toxic material, but impaired breathing and a lack of gag reflex can cause the drinker to choke on their own vomit. If the person has passed out and is lying down, they may aspirate the vomit into their lungs. Sometimes a person’s overdrinking may cause their breathing not only to slow dramatically but to stop entirely. This, in turn, can trigger cardiac arrest.

What to Do

Friends of the person who passes out may mistakenly think that it’s a blessing because the drinker can just “sleep off” their drunkenness. However, it’s important to keep a person who has consumed toxic amounts of alcohol awake and seated in an upright position. Never lay them on their back.

Another common misconception is that drinking coffee will help the person sober up more quickly. This is false. Alcohol is a diuretic. It will cause a person to urinate more frequently and will lead to dehydration. Coffee is also a diuretic and drinking it will only further dehydrate the person. On the other hand, if the person is alert enough to take a drink of water, the water can help to rehydrate them.

Another popular misunderstanding is that it’s possible to walk off alcohol. Walking won’t help and, in fact, is a bad idea. The individual’s lack of motor control makes it dangerous for them to be up and moving around. Walking them won’t rid the body of toxins but it will raise the chances of a fall-related injury.

If you think your friend may be suffering from alcohol poisoning, the best thing to do is to get the person to the hospital for medical care. The hospital staff will protect the person’s airway, keep them hydrated and may pump the stomach.

Finally, the very best kind of support a friend can offer is to confront alcohol abuse. It might not be comfortable to speak up, but the consequences of alcohol poisoning make staying quiet a potentially deadly error.

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