The Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning: Facts, Stats & Symptoms
For decades, alcohol has remained the most commonly used and socially acceptable drug. Many people are open in discussing their drinking habits. In fact, some actually attach status to how much or how frequently they imbibe. When you understand how dangerous these social drinking practices can be, however, you realize what a serious issue drinking to excess can be.
Perhaps the popularity of alcohol over other dangerous drugs leads to its abuse. Since it is legal for adults to consume alcoholic beverages, many people think it isn’t harmful. Another misconception is that occasionally overindulging is not a big risk since most people equate addiction with constant or steady use.
Addiction is a very serious, often life-threatening, condition, but it is not the only risk with alcohol. Alcohol poisoning can be deadly, and it can happen to anyone, even someone who doesn’t think he has a drinking problem.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol, like any other drug, affects the body when consumed. Since alcohol is swallowed, it enters the digestive system and is absorbed into the bloodstream. If there is food in the digestive system, the rate of absorption is slower. Alcohol is a toxin; the liver filters toxins out of the blood. However, the liver has a limited capacity. It can only handle a certain volume per hour, like any other filter.
Imagine you’re at the beach sifting sand to find small seashells. When you pour a bucket of sand through your sifter slowly, the sand goes through the mesh and the small seashells are left behind. If you get a bigger bucket, though, and dump the sand all at once, the sifter quickly becomes overwhelmed. The excess sand flows over the sides, taking with it any seashells hidden in it. At the end, you have some seashells left in your sifter, but many more have been lost with the overflowing sand.
Just like your sifter at the beach, if your liver is overwhelmed by a high concentration of toxins, it cannot catch them all. The excess alcohol runs past the liver and remains in the bloodstream. It is the unfiltered alcohol in your bloodstream that results in a feeling of intoxication.
If you consume one drink very quickly, you may feel this intoxication. If you sip your drink over the course of an hour or more, you may not feel intoxicated because your liver is able to process the alcohol at about the same rate as you are consuming it.
Alcohol poisoning happens when the drinking gets way ahead of the liver, and you experience more than just a feeling of intoxication. Alcohol is toxic to human beings. By adding large quantities of it to the bloodstream, you are essentially poisoning yourself.
Once the liver is overwhelmed by the quantity of toxins in the body, they are released to roam free in the bloodstream until the liver can catch up with them. Poison circulating through the body can cause serious damage before the liver can neutralize it. Alcohol poisoning can be deadly.
What is Alcohol Poisoning and How Does it Affect the Body?
Toxins act on the body in different ways – the end result being death if the body cannot clear out the poison in time. Alcohol is no exception. While small amounts may not seem to affect your system at all, large amounts of alcohol in your bloodstream can result in death.
Alcohol, unfiltered by the liver, can affect these organs:
- Liver: In addition to being overwhelmed and not doing its job to break down some of the alcohol, the liver’s functionality can be diminished by too much alcohol. Fibrosis, a condition that alters the flexibility of the liver tissue, can occur and reduce the liver’s capacity to filter blood. When liver function is diminished, it doesn’t just affect alcohol consumption. The liver is responsible for filtering all types of toxins out of the blood. Fibrosis leads to a worsening condition called cirrhosis, which can lead to liver failure.
- Heart: Alcohol is a depressant that slows body functions. This effect alters the heart’s ability to do its job. Overexposure to alcohol, either all at once or over a long period of time, will lead to changes in the heart muscle. High blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and stroke, all life-threatening conditions, can result from alcohol poisoning.
- Pancreas: The pancreas is involved in a number of vital body functions including digestion. The chemical changes that occur in the body when the bloodstream is flooded with alcohol cause the pancreas to produce toxins that interfere with circulation and proper digestion.
- Brain: Intoxication is a sign the alcohol is affecting your brain. Mood and behavior are two primary changes that can be very dangerous. Excessive alcohol can lower your mood to the point of being suicidal, while also reducing your inhibitions and increasing your tolerance for risk-taking behavior.
How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Affect the Body?
The severity of the condition and the overall health, size and weight of the victim determine how long he experiences the effects of alcohol poisoning. Some effects, like brain damage, may not be reversible.
Generally, alcohol poisoning lasts until the toxins have cleared the body. For some this can be hours, for others it is much longer.
To end a case of alcohol poisoning, the alcohol in the bloodstream needs to be broken down and detoxified. Over time, the liver may be able to complete this task if it is functioning optimally and the consumption of alcohol stops. The body has virtually no hope of recovering from alcohol poisoning while drinking continues.
When to Seek Help
Medical intervention can assist the body in detoxifying the blood while managing some of the other symptoms. The first step is to empty the contents of the stomach to be sure no more alcohol can enter the bloodstream. The remainder of the treatment involves monitoring the patient while the liver works to filter out the alcohol. There is no way of predicting how long this will take.
While waiting for the alcohol to clear the system and things to return to normal, medical personnel will administer fluids to prevent dehydration. They also provide oxygen therapy when needed to assist with breathing, and use vitamins and glucose to try to prevent any serious complications.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?
One of the problems with alcohol poisoning is that you may not see it coming. While the toxins are interfering with your internal organs, your judgment is severely affected. Once your brain is affected by the overconsumption of alcohol, you may not be able to stop. That’s when it really becomes dangerous.
Recognizing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning may not help if you are the victim. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Demonstrating confusion
- Throwing up
- Experiencing seizures
- Developing blue or pale skin
- Breathing irregularly
- Dropping body temperature
- Losing consciousness
The best way to avoid alcohol poisoning is to avoid alcohol. Never engage in binge drinking and never encourage someone who is already intoxicated to drink more.
Causes of Alcohol Poisoning
At its most basic level, alcohol poisoning is caused by the overconsumption of alcohol. However, it is difficult to assess how much is too much. The amount varies by individual, and each situation is unique. Alcohol poisoning is caused by a combination of too much alcohol and too little time.
Binge drinking, a fad especially popular among young people, is a leading cause of alcohol poisoning. It combines excessive amounts of alcohol with short periods of time, a perfect storm. Binge drinking can happen all at once, like a drinking contest to see how much beer a person can consume in five minutes, or it can be a prolonged affair. A so-called party weekend where people drink heavily for a couple days straight has the potential to end in alcohol poisoning and even death.
Once you’ve consumed enough alcohol at one time to pass out, you might think the danger has passed, but it hasn’t. Friends who walk away from someone who has passed out after drinking too much may think they’re letting him sleep it off, but they could actually be leaving him to die. Even though he has stopped drinking, alcohol may still be entering his bloodstream through his digestive system.
Every ounce of alcohol a person swallows has to go somewhere. Drinking quickly and not feeling the effects right away is not protection from alcohol poisoning. In fact, it may be more exposure to the deadly condition. The liver filters what it can, and the rest will end up in the bloodstream. The only other avenue is to remove the alcohol from the stomach before it has a chance to enter the bloodstream.
Who Has to Worry About Alcohol Poisoning?
It’s not just binge drinkers who have to worry about alcohol poisoning. There are other ways of raising your blood alcohol level above what your body can handle. Some people who abuse alcohol maintain a blood alcohol level just below the threshold.
If you’ve ever seen a person get drunk on just one drink, you’ve witnessed the standard act of someone who struggles with addiction. He may not be intoxicated all the time, but he is close. One of the many problems with standing that close to the line is it is easy to go over.
Truly, anyone who consumes alcohol could be at risk for alcohol poisoning. Given the right combination of circumstances like low blood sugar, empty stomach, compromised metabolism, cold medicines or other large amounts of toxins in the body, anyone could run into trouble without realizing it. The only way to absolutely prevent alcohol poisoning is to avoid alcohol consumption.
How Do You Know If You Have Alcohol Poisoning?
If you consume alcohol, do not assume you can’t be subject to alcohol poisoning. The it-can’t-happen-to-me reasoning when it comes to this condition could land you in the hospital or worse. Alcohol poisoning can happen to anyone who consumes alcohol, even just once in a while, so it’s important to recognize the symptoms and understand the ramifications.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol poisoning is common:
- In the U.S. each year there are 2,200 deaths from alcohol poisoning, or approximately six every day. A majority of those deaths involve people between the ages of 35-64.
- Binge drinking, a leading cause of alcohol poisoning, is most common among people aged 18-34 years; however, the binge drinkers over age 64 do it more often.
Since drinking is mostly a social activity, and binge drinking is often engaged in as a competition, you are more likely to recognize alcohol poisoning in someone other than yourself. If you observe unusual signs such as trouble breathing or very pale skin, or you see someone passed out from drinking, they may have alcohol poisoning. Medical intervention is always advised for this condition.
As soon as the thought enters your mind that you might be dealing with alcohol poisoning, get medical attention right away. If the condition turns out not to be serious, the hospital won’t mind. Meanwhile, you could save someone’s life by getting them the treatment they need quickly.
Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is an acute condition that requires medical attention right away. If the underlying condition is addiction, that needs to be treated also. If it happens to you, alcohol poisoning should be a wakeup call. No one wants to come that close to death. You don’t want to repeat the experience of waiting for your body to clear the alcohol and not knowing what is going to happen.
Addiction is a serious condition. As a follow-up to treatment for alcohol poisoning, you may need to consider addiction rehabilitation. Getting the excess alcohol out of your system so your body can work right is just the beginning of recovery. You shouldn’t allow yourself or someone you love to get clean just to go back to the old habits of getting intoxicated again.
It is almost impossible to fight addiction on your own. At 12 Keys Rehab, we can help you. We are experts in dealing with every kind of addiction there is. We can provide you with an individualized program to meet your specific needs, address your issues, and help you heal.
Alcohol is dangerous and many people become addicted to it. 12 Keys can help you break that addiction and take your life and health back. Contact us today to learn more about developing a happy, healthy, substance-free lifestyle. We’re here to help.