Alcohol Poisoning: When Drinking Becomes Dangerous

Alcohol Poisoning: When Drinking Becomes Dangerous

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Many of us will have experienced being drunk in our lives. Accidentally drinking one too many, or underestimating the alcohol content of a drink until it's too late and suddenly your speech is slurred; your head is spinning; your inhibitions are at an all-time low.

But it's when people continue drinking, beyond this stage, that things can become dangerous - known as alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose. Drinking too much too fast leads to a rapid onset of symptoms that requires medical attention, suddenly bringing an abrupt end to the fun.

Our private doctors at London Doctors Clinic are here to advise on how to avoid such situations and drink responsibly, as well as to educate people on what to do should alcohol poisoning unfortunately occur.

 

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

If someone is significantly inebriated, they may be verging on what is considered as an 'alcohol overdose', the symptoms of which include:

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Slow breathing
    • less than 8 breaths per minute
  • Blue tinged or pale skin
  • Unconscious and can’t be woken up
  • Low body temperature
  • Seizures

But not all the above symptoms need to be present for medical attention to be sought: if someone unconscious and can’t be woken up, then seek medical attention immediately. 

 

Alcohol

The chemical name for alcohol is ethanol and can be found in many items besides alcoholic beverages. Products such as mouthwash, household products, some medications and cooking extracts can all contain ethanol. 

Other forms of alcohol, like isopropyl alcohol which is found in rubbing alcohol and lotions, and methanol or ethylene glycol, a common substance found in anti-freeze, solvents and paints all cause toxicity that need emergency care.

alcohol-antifreeze-ethanol

Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, is also commonly found in substances such as anti-freeze (pictured) and mouthwash

 

Binge Drinking

This is the leading cause of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking occurs when a male consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours or a female consumes four alcoholic drinks within the same time frame.

Binge drinking can occur over hours or days. You can consume a large amount of alcohol before you pass out, but alcohol is continuously being released from your stomach into your bloodstream after you fall unconscious so levels can continue to rise in your blood and become fatal.

 

Alcohol Units

For men and women, you shouldn’t exceed more than 14 units of alcohol in one week. So what does one unit of alcohol look like?

  • Cider 4.5%: less than half a pint (218ml)
  • Beer 4%: half a pint (250ml)
  • Wine 13%: Half a glass (76ml)
  • Spirits 40%: 1 shot (25ml)
  • Alcopop 4%: 250ml

Typically, it takes an adult 1 hour to process 1 unit of alcohol, but this varies from person to person. Factors that influence it include; age, gender, height and weight, overall health, whether you’ve eaten recently, the amount of drugs already in your system and your tolerance level.

 

Complications of Alcohol Poisoning

If alcohol poisoning is left go untreated, severe complications can arise from ethanol toxicity, including;

  • Choking:
    • Alcohol intoxication may cause vomiting and one serious complication is that alcohol depressed your gag reflex which may cause someone to choke on their own vomit. This can also lead to someone inhaling vomit into their lungs and cause them to stop breathing.
  • Dehydration:
    • Consuming too much alcohol can lead to severe dehydration which can lead to extremely low blood pressure
  • Seizures:
    • As a result of low blood sugar levels
  • Hypothermia:
    • Your body temperature may drop so low that it could lead to someone going into cardiac arrest
  • Brain Damage:
    • Decreased breathing can lead to a lack of oxygen, dehydration can lead to a lack of blood flow to the brain or low blood sugar levels can cause irreversible brain damage
  • Death
    • All the factors mentioned above on their own or together can lead to death from alcohol poisoning

 

Diagnosing Alcohol Poisoning

As well as checking for signs and symptoms, the doctor will most likely order blood and urine tests to check alcohol levels. They might also examine blood glucose to check for low blood sugar levels.

 

How Do You Treat Alcohol Poisoning?

Treatment involves careful monitoring and supportive therapy while your body gets rid of the alcohol naturally. This will include

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Fluids administered through an IV (intravenous) drip to combat any dehydration
  • Administer vitamins and glucose to help with any complications of alcohol poisoning

 

What To Do If Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning

If you suspect that someone else has alcohol poisoning, don’t hesitate to seek immediate medical care. In the mean time, here are some key first-aid steps to take: 

  • Seek medical help: don’t assume the person will 'sleep it off' if they’re showing the signs mentioned previously
  • Do not give the person coffee if the person is responsive, give them water instead
  • Don’t leave him/her alone as if they fall unconscious they may choke on their vomit
  • If a person is vomiting, help them by sitting them up or else turning them onto their side to keep their airway open
  • Keep them warm

drunk-unconscious-alcohol-poisoning-overdose-recovery-position

If someone falls unconscious, then putting them in the recovery position could save their life, as it helps keep their airway open

 

Of course, the best advice regarding alcohol poisoning is to practise responsible drinking and as not to fall into a dangerously intoxicated state with the above symptoms. However, should you ever to find yourself in a situation whereby someone is worryingly drunk, the above advice could save their life.

For more information on alcohol poisoning and responsible drinking, check out some of the many links in this article, or search for a "GP near me" - with eight convenient central London clinics, we're never far away when you are in need of GP services.  

By Sophie O'Halloran

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