Alcohol Poisoning – Signs and Symptoms
You can drink alcohol in moderation, and it will not be a problem. Having the occasional lager in the pub with your mates or a glass of wine at a dinner party is perfectly normal but alcohol abuse can be extremely dangerous. Besides the risk of developing alcohol use disorder from long term frequent excessive alcohol consumption, there are also risks associated with short term binge drinking, most notably alcohol poisoning.
What is alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is the result of drinking more alcohol than your body can handle and is a serious problem. As with any type of poisoning or exposure to toxins, the body will react badly to excessive drinking and drinking too much alcohol too quickly has a number of dangerous side effects. Alcohol poisoning occurs when your blood alcohol content (BAC) is so high that your liver can no longer cope with the amount of alcohol that it needs to process, and this has a negative effect on your normal body functions, like heart rate, body temperature, blood sugar, breathing, and gag reflex.
Typically caused by drinking an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time, alcohol poisoning or an alcohol overdose can make you extremely ill in the short term and have serious long term health consequences, including brain damage. In the worst-case scenario, an alcohol overdose can be life-threatening and even fatal. Unlike food, which usually takes hours to digest, alcohol is absorbed quickly by the body, but your liver can only process or metabolise it at a certain speed. Even once you stop drinking your BAC can continue to rise for up to 40 minutes as alcohol continues to be released into your bloodstream from your stomach and this means that you can consume a fatal dose of alcohol before you even pass out.
All types of alcohol are dangerous
Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the key ingredient in alcoholic drinks and this is what makes you drunk. Ethyl alcohol poisoning is generally the result of heavy or binge drinking in a short period of time. There are, however, a number of other forms of alcohol that are also dangerous to ingest, and a common cause of alcohol poisoning is the intentional or accidental consumption of household products that contain high levels of methanol, ethylene glycol, and isopropyl alcohol, like mouthwash, cough mixture, cleaning products, solvents, paints, and antifreeze. Drinking even a small amount of methanol, ethylene glycol, and isopropyl alcohol can be extremely dangerous and will require immediate emergency medical treatment.
Binge drinking is a major cause of alcohol poisoning and a man who consumes five or more drinks within two hours, or a woman who consumes four drinks in two hours, can develop alcohol poisoning. But this is not a hard and fast rule and your overall health, the type and amount of food you consumed prior to drinking, your size, weight and tolerance level for alcohol, any drugs and medications that you are taking, and the percentage of alcohol in each drink, will also determine how your body reacts to the effects of the alcohol and increase your risks of an alcohol overdose.
Any form of alcohol poisoning should never be taken lightly, and if you suspect that anyone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, don’t wait for the symptoms to get worse, seek immediate medical attention.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning
The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning can differ from one person to the next and this sometimes makes it hard to spot if you do not know what you are looking for or if you have not experienced it before. You do not need to be falling down drunk or display all the signs of alcohol poisoning to be at risk of serious or fatal consequences. If you have any of the following signs of alcohol poisoning, you need to seek medical attention.
- Irregular or slow breathing (less than 8 beats per minute)
- Irregular heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extremely pale, blue-hued or clammy skin
- Significant drop in body temperature
- Passing out, becoming unconscious or falling into a stupor
- Loss of coordination, balance or bowel control
- Uncontrollable shivering and shaking
- Blurred vision
Risks associated with alcohol poisoning
There are both short term and long risks associated with alcohol poisoning. The short-term your body functions will not work properly and the risks include;
- Choking – consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can cause you to vomit but because alcohol affects your gag reflex you are more likely to choke on your own vomit if you pass out
- Asphyxiation – accidentally inhaling vomit into your lungs can lead to asphyxiation
- Dehydration – excessive vomiting can lead to severe dehydration, dangerously low blood pressure and an increased heart rate
- Hypothermia – excessive alcohol consumption can cause a drop in body temperature and ultimately cardiac arrest
- Irregular heartbeat – alcohol poisoning can cause an irregular heartbeat or a heart attack
- Hypoglycemia – alcohol poisoning causes your blood sugar to drop and this, in turn, can lead to confusion, heart palpitations, and uncontrollable shaking
- Seizures – if your blood sugar drops too low, you can experience seizures
The long-term consequences of alcohol poisoning include;
- Brain damage – heavy drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage
- Stroke or heart damage – excessive alcohol consumption can lead to permanent heart damage and ultimately cardiac arrest, heart failure or a stroke
- Pancreatitis – this is the inflammation of the pancreas and can be the result of alcohol poisoning
- Certain cancers – alcohol poisoning increases your risk of developing certain types of cancer, including cancer of the liver
- Liver disease – binge drinking and excessive alcohol consumption can cause several liver diseases
How to avoid alcohol poisoning
The most obvious way to avoid alcohol poisoning is not to drink alcohol at all. But if you do choose to drink alcohol, always be responsible and do so in moderation. For healthy adults that means one drink a day for women and men over the age of 65. Men younger than 65 can have two drinks. One drink is defined as5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor or 1.5 ounces hard liquor. Never drink on an empty stomach and make sure that you eat before you go out because food slows the absorption of alcohol. If you binge drink, however, eating won’t prevent alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening and it is important to know the signs and symptoms. If you suspect that someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, you need to seek medical help immediately.
Contact Ocean Recovery Centre to find out more about the dangers of alcohol abuse.
John Gillen - Author - Last updated: December 14, 2021
John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.
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