This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Robert Lefever, a world-leading addictions specialist.
Alcohol poisoning is also known as alcohol overdose. It is a state in human beings where too much alcohol is found in the bloodstream, consequently affecting the proper functioning of the brain. Therefore, one may suffer from mild to severe impairment. As a result, standard functions such as breathing, heart rate are affected. In the worst case, some victims of alcohol poisoning end up dying.
Medically, the degree of intoxication is in an individual’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). The more drinks one takes, the higher the BAC. When the BAC reaches between 0.13 to 016, it is alcohol poisoning. BAC Past 0.30 is life-threatening.
How does alcohol poisoning happen?
Most people confuse intoxication and alcohol poisoning, but there is a significant difference. While they share many symptoms, the effects and signs of alcohol poisoning are severe compared to the movements of general intoxication.
Alcohol poisoning results from the rapid consumption of alcohol in a short time. Too much alcohol in the body leads to a higher alcohol concentration in the bloodstream leading to severe impairment.
Binge drinking is among the leading causes of alcohol poisoning. In binge drinking, excessive alcohol consumption takes place in a short time. For drinking to be considered a binge, the BAC must exceed 0.16. This habit is rampant among college students. The glorification of excessive drinking has excited college life, and students being young will probably throw caution out of the window.
How to know your alcohol limit?
While taking alcohol, it is hard to determine your BAC level. A person has to take a trip to a medical facility to have their BAC measured. Due to differences in alcohol tolerance levels among different people, it is difficult to predict an individual’s BAC level that is in the range of alcohol poisoning. For most people, the rate at which the body eliminates alcohol is approximately one drink per hour. The alcohol tolerance limit varies from one person to the other. The variance depends on several factors that affect alcohol tolerance, as discussed below.
What are factors that affect alcohol tolerance?
It is worth noting that various factors determine the variance of the level of intoxication among different people. Some of the factors include:
Women are more vulnerable to alcohol effects compared to men. This is because the absorption and metabolism of alcohol are different in women compared to men. In addition, the fact that women generally have less water than men of similar weight makes them achieve higher alcohol concentrations in their blood.
As people grow old, the ability of the body to tolerate alcohol reduces. In addition, the ability to metabolise alcohol lowers with old age. Therefore, the alcohol remains in the system for a long. As a result, after taking a drink, older people will have difficulty walking or holding a conversation compared to younger people.
The less a person weighs, the more they are affected by alcohol. This is because the amount of weight determines the amount of space in the system that alcohol diffuses. Thus, those with less body weight will have a higher alcohol concentration in their body compared to those with higher body weight.
Certain drugs have harmful interactions with alcohol. In some instances, alcohol may significantly lower the effectiveness to the point of making them ineffective. Some of the problems related to alcohol interaction with medications include:
- Blood pressure
Worse still, mixing alcohol and medications can cause the following complications.
- Heart complications
- Liver damage
- Difficulties in breathing
5. Rate of consumption
The more a person takes alcohol, the higher the BAC. The faster the drink is taken, the faster a person gets drunk. The body has a way of breaking alcohol down, the rate being approximately one bottle per hour. It therefore follows, more rapid rate of consumption will overwhelm the body, lowering the alcohol tolerance level.
6. Availability of food in the stomach
Taking alcohol on an empty stomach leads to the rapid absorption of alcohol in the gut. However, with a full stomach, the absorption of alcohol in the system is low and hence higher tolerance.
7. Strength of the alcohol
There are different alcohol types, including beer, wine, whiskey, and rum, among others. As many as they are, they come with additional alcohol content, some stronger than others. The higher the alcohol content, the more a person will have a higher alcohol concentration in their system. For instance, one bottle of beer cannot be the same as the effects of a bottle of whiskey, which has higher alcohol content.
Effects of alcohol poisoning
Any amount of alcohol consumption will have effects. What matters is the intensity of taking alcohol which determines the variance of impact from one person to the other. While some people can control their drinking, others are unable to control their drinking. One glass of alcohol may cause minor damage, but drinking too much on a single occasion or over a long period can seriously affect a person’s health.
As earlier observed, the intensity of effects of alcohol depends on tolerance ability. Those who have higher tolerance can drink more than those with lower tolerance. Depending on a person’s alcohol tolerance level, the effects can vary from minor complications to life-threatening ones.
Alcohol poisoning, which has the most severe effects, has the following symptoms:
- Prolonged irregular breathing
- Vomiting, sometimes uncontrollably
- Unresponsiveness but conscious
- Passing out
- Hypothermia- low body temperature
- Skin becoming cold
Dangerous effects of alcohol poisoning?
- Suffering heart attack
- Developing severe hypothermia
- Choking from vomit
- Dehydration can severely damage the brain.
- A person can stop breathing
- Death in extreme cases
Over time, drinking too much alcohol can cause serious health effects. As the habit grows, you find yourself finding it hard to stop. Cumulatively, someone can suffer the following:
Alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication system. In turn, the proper functioning of the brain is affected. The disruptions can change behaviour and emotions, affecting clear thinking and good coordination. For example, slurred speech is a tell-tale sign of drinking too much.
Too much alcohol affects the digestive system by abnormally activating digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas. These enzymes can lead to pancreatitis, which is inflammation. Over a long time, pancreatitis can cause serious health complications.
The liver is the organ that breaks down harmful toxic substances from the body, including alcohol. Extended use of alcohol interferes with the proper functioning of the liver. It causes chronic liver inflammation and diseases. It can lead to a dangerous condition known as liver cirrhosis. As the liver is affected, its function of detoxification fails.
As the pancreas is affected, its function of regulating insulin and response to glucose is affected. With a damaged liver and pancreas, a person runs at risk of low blood sugar and hypoglycemia. Consequently, a damaged pancreas prevents the body from producing the needed insulin, leading to hyperglycemia or excess sugar in the blood. The net effect is suffering from diabetes, a lifestyle disease.
Can you be immune from alcohol poisoning?
The effects of alcohol on an individual depend on weight, age, medication, and alcohol tolerance. All the above factors can only alter the BAC levels of different people. Regardless, consumption of alcohol has effects on anyone who consumes it.
No single person is immune to alcohol poisoning. Taking too much alcohol too fast will result in alcohol poisoning. As you get used to drinking alcohol frequently, the body may build tolerance. At some point, the tolerance stops increasing. You reach a point where you think you are not getting drunk and keep drinking to the dangerous end of passing out.
Mistakenly, some people may interpret the ability to tolerate more alcohol as immunity, but that is not the case. The result is the toxic effects reaching dangerous levels.
How to treat alcohol poisoning
Commonly, you find people treating intoxication by splashing cold water on the face or forcing intoxicated people to drink water or milk. At times, they are put to sleep. But, in most cases, the intoxicated recover after some time as the body detoxifies.
Despite the similarities in general intoxication and alcohol poisoning symptoms, one can easily distinguish between the two. The symptoms of alcohol poisoning are severe, and one needs to pay keen attention. When you observe the following symptoms in a loved one: uncontrollable vomiting, skin becoming cold, and passing out, you should consider that as alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that necessitates immediate medical attention. If left untreated, alcohol poisoning can be fatal to the extent of causing death. Therefore, people should follow the following steps should be followed in a case of suspected alcohol poisoning:
- Seek help by calling for emergency medical help immediately
- Try keeping them awake
- Please provide them with water and assist them in sipping to keep them hydrated.
- To control hypothermia, cover them with a warm material.
- To prevent choking, try to keep them sitting up or turn their head to the side.
- Do not give them any more alcohol
- Do not make them walk
How to test drink in the body?
There are two recognised methods of testing the amount of alcohol in the system or blood alcohol content:
As the alcohol gets absorbed, it moves through the bloodstream to the lungs. At the lungs, it evaporates, and as breathing out takes place, it is ejected. So if a person blows into a Breathalyzer, it can estimate the BAC in the breath.
2.Lab blood test
So far, this is the most accurate method of testing BAC. First, a small amount of blood is drawn with a needle. It is then analysed for the BAC. However, the accuracy of the BAC will be high within 6- 12 hours from the consumption of alcohol.
Who is at the highest risk of alcohol poisoning?
Anyone who takes excessive alcohol in a short amount of time can be a victim. However, young people are more likely to engage in excessive drinking. Younger people, especially college students acting under peer pressure, are most likely to engage in binge drinking.
Apart from college students, people between the ages of 18-35 years tend to fancy life partying and drinking alcohol. At this age, some have just reached the legal age of drinking or have moved out of their parent’s home. Unfortunately, this secured freedom with little caution can lead young people to engage in harmful habits such as overdrinking.
Unexpectedly, minors are also at risk of alcohol poisoning. The kids at a stage of exploration and discovery can unknowingly consume alcohol if kept within their reach. Therefore, it is advised that parents should keep drink out of reach of kids or in locked places.
Sadly, thousands of deaths following alcohol poisoning are reported every year. However, these deaths can be prevented if the correct measures are taken to address this problem.
How to prevent alcohol poisoning?
If you must drink, do it responsibly. It is important to place limits on the amount of alcohol you can take on a single occasion. Some people may argue about possessing a high tolerance level, but the results are always catastrophic after reaching dangerous levels. Even if not for anything else, drinking alcohol responsibly is important as excessive alcohol consumption impairs coordination and judgment.
To drink moderately and avoid binge drinking, you can apply some practices that increase tolerance levels, including eating well before drinking, playing drinking games, drinking slowly over an extended time, and drinking water between the drinks.
To protect minors from alcohol poisoning, parents should keep alcohol out of reach of children. In addition, the parents should lock cabinets where liquor is stored. If possible, adults should avoid taking drinks in the presence of children.
Most importantly, educating family members, especially teens and young adults. They should be made to be aware of the dangers of alcohol poisoning and how to prevent it.
In this day and age, society cannot ignore the problem of alcohol. Every year, thousands of deaths are caused by alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is no longer a problem of those who drink only, but even family members and friends who do not drink alcohol are affected.
Young people being the most affected, they to be educated on the dangers of alcohol poisoning. In addition, society should employ concerted to discourage young people from engaging in behaviours that may lead to alcohol poisoning.
Finally, people should be educated on how to handle those suspected of alcohol poisoning and to call for medical assistance immediately for treatment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is alcohol poisoning the same as alcohol overdose?
Is there anyone immune to alcohol poisoning?
How to know the difference between alcohol poisoning and general intoxication?
What is the first thing to do after suspecting alcohol poisoning?
Can alcohol poisoning cause death?
Who is at the most risk of alcohol poisoning?
- Alcohol poisoning
- Alcohol and Tolerance – Alcohol Alert No. 28-1995
- Alcohol poisoning: Symptoms, treatment, and causes
- Alcohol poisoning – Symptoms and causes
- Absorption Rate Factors
- Factors That Affect How Alcohol is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education
Alcohol poisoning is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol which the body can’t handle. Due to excess alcohol in the bloodstream many bodily functions are impaired. Though, alcohol poisoning can also be cause by moderate amount of alcohol.