Recognizing the Signs of Alcohol Poisoning & What to Do

Imagine you’re at a nightclub or a bar and you start to see someone acting strangely. Strange even for someone who’s been drinking. Maybe they can’t seem to form words or perhaps they can’t remember where they are. It could be something much more serious than simple alcohol intoxication—you may be witnessing the signs of alcohol poisoning.

There’s a big difference between a casual drink with friends and a night of binge drinking. Even one too many can lead to potentially dangerous situations. And having one too many over an extended period can lead to the chronic consequences of alcohol abuse. However, when getting drunk is the goal, there’s a higher probability of reaching a dangerous blood-alcohol level.

If you start to have trouble remaining conscious or if you can’t seem to think clearly, you may be experiencing some life-threatening effects of alcohol poisoning. As the substance flows through your veins at dangerous levels, you may soon find yourself unable to speak or even breathe normally.

The line between a buzz and intoxication can be blurry. In fact, with enough alcohol in your system, you may find that a lot of things appear blurry, including the line be between intoxication and alcohol poisoning. If you or someone you know is at risk for alcohol poisoning, it’s essential to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms and what you can do to save their life. Alcohol poisoning is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate action.

The Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning, or an alcohol overdose, occurs when an excessive amount of alcohol is present in the bloodstream. This is measured by what is called your blood-alcohol content (BAC) which is used to measure the concentration of alcohol in your bloodstream.

Alcohol poisoning tends to occur around a BAC of 0.25 percent, which is more than three times 0.08 percent, the legal driving limit. When high concentrations of alcohol are present, the areas of the brain that controls breathing and heart rate begin to shut down.

Besides binge drinking, there are also several other factors that can contribute to alcohol poisoning. Some of these factors include age, sex, drinking experience, unknown allergies to alcohol, and the amount of food eaten, among other factors.

When a person is struggling with the effects of alcohol poisoning, they will likely experience some confusion and they may not know where they are, who they are with, or what they are doing. If a person who has been drinking starts asking basic questions about their circumstances, it may be a telltale sign.

Because alcohol is a depressant, it begins to lower the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Inhibiting arousal and excitement are some of the first signs that a depressant is at play. However, excessive amounts will begin to shut down some of the body’s essential functions. The brain functions that control breathing and body temperature may be inhibited, causing you to experience irregular or shallow breathing or even hypothermia.

As excessive alcohol starts to take over the brain, you may have difficulty staying awake, starting to drift in and out of consciousness. Some simply fall unconscious even in loud party settings. Additionally, people with alcohol poisoning will have difficulty breathing or experience irregularity in their breathing, with long periods of time (ten seconds or more) in between breaths. Due to the severity of the symptoms, alcohol poisoning can be deadly and should not be taken lightly.

The alcohol poisoning signs and symptoms  include:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Blue or pale skin (as if cold or struggling to breathe)
  • Shivering or low body temperature
  • Passing out

One dangerous effect of alcohol poisoning is the way it affects the gag reflex. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining which can cause nausea and vomiting. Under normal circumstances, vomiting can trigger gagging and coughing to clear airways, even while asleep.

However, a person who is intoxicated to the point of passing out is in danger of choking on their vomit which could lead to asphyxiation and death. If you notice that someone has vomited and has not woken up, they may be experiencing alcohol poisoning and will require immediate medical help.

What Can You Do?

A person doesn’t need to be exhibiting all of the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning before it’s time for you to call an ambulance. Seeing some of these symptoms by themselves, especially unconsciousness may constitute a medical emergency. If a person becomes unconscious, try to wake them up and keep them awake until help arrives. Even if you have to slap them or pinch them to get them to wake up, you might be saving their life.

If you can’t wake them up, stay with them until help arrives. If a person vomits in their sleep, you will need to turn them on their side and make sure they are still breathing. If they aspirate vomit, they could choke or even drown. Some assume that inducing vomiting will clear excess alcohol from their system, but this may worsen the situation.

Even if they wake up, you still need to stay with them and be aware of other signs and symptoms. No matter what the situation, never leave them alone. If they become awake, try to sit them up and give them water if they are able to drink. While you are waiting for medical personnel to arrive, be sure to keep the person warm.

If a person is not conscious or barely able to stay awake, there are a few things you can do to help them avoid choking. You can start by putting their arm above their head, bending their opposite knee, and rolling them toward you. Be sure that they are laying on their side, and preferably their left side. By putting them on their left side it will slow the progress of alcohol to the small intestine and also will allow air to surface from the right lung. Therefore, if a person has to throw up, they are more likely to do so safely by this method.

Alcohol Poisoning: a Sign of a Deeper Issue

Alcohol poisoning may be a sign that a person is struggling with alcohol abuse and alcoholism. It is important that once a person is out of immediate danger from the effects of alcohol poisoning they seek treatment immediately. Since the physical and psychological withdrawals from alcohol can be severe and life-threatening in themselves, medical detoxification is needed to minimize those symptoms so they can transition to formal inpatient drug treatment. The dangers of alcohol poisoning are significant and real. By knowing the signs and symptoms, you can save somebody’s life and give them a second chance.

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