More than three-quarters of Americans have consumed an alcoholic beverage in their lifetimes. They enjoy a beer while watching a football game, or sip a cocktail with friends after work. For the majority, this type of drinking doesn’t cause serious health issues.
For others, alcohol use and abuse can be life-threatening. 88,000 people die from alcohol-related issues every year. Alcohol poisoning is the most common cause.
We’ll explain the eight signs of alcohol toxicity to be aware of, and how to avoid them.
The kind of alcohol we drink is ethanol. We feel the effects of ethanol when it enters the bloodstream and then the brain, heart and other organs. Ultimately, alcohol is processed in the liver, which can handle about one drink an hour.
One drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces of hard liquor
So, if you drink two beers in one hour, your liver can only process the alcohol in one of those beers. The rest of the alcohol builds up in your system.
That’s when a person begins to feel the effects of the alcohol more strongly. It’s also when others can detect changes in the person’s behavior.
Alcohol toxicity occurs when someone drinks so much alcohol that their liver can’t possibly process it in a short amount of time. All that alcohol floods the bloodstream and affects areas of the brain that control vital functions like breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.
That’s what makes alcohol toxicity so dangerous. Alcohol is a depressant, so it has a depressive effect on every organ in the body. Too much alcohol can literally depress or even stop the brain function that controls breathing.
Someone who drinks too much alcohol can stop breathing as well as stop the heart.
Signs of Alcohol Toxicity
If you suspect someone is drinking too much too quickly, watch that person carefully for signs of alcohol poisoning. It can be life-threatening, and you might not have much time to summon help.
The most common signs are:
- Slow breathing – less than 8 breaths per minute
- Irregular breathing – a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths
- Low body temperature
- Blue or pale skin
Excessive amounts of alcohol can lower blood sugar which can cause seizures. Low body temperature can lead to seizures. Dehydration can cause brain damage.
If you suspect someone is suffering from alcohol toxicity, it’s vitally important that you get help for that person immediately. Alcohol poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage or death.
Please understand, the person might not display all eight of the signs listed above. It’s better to be safe and call for help, even if you only notice one or two symptoms.
Trust your instinct here. If you notice enough to worry about the person, then get help.
What to Do When You Call for Help
If you suspect someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, there are some things you can do immediately.
First, call 9-1-1. Never assume the person will sleep it off. Someone with alcohol poisoning can vomit and choke or even stop breathing while they are conscious or passed out.
Try to keep the person sitting up if possible. This will help them breathe and may keep them from choking. If the person isn’t conscious or can’t sit up, try to roll them on their side. Don’t leave them alone.
Give the emergency personnel as much information as you can. Let them know how much the person drank, what kind of alcohol was consumed, and if drugs, legal or illegal, were part of the substances used.
What Not to Do
There are a number of myths about ways to sober someone up who has had too much to drink. None of them work.
In the case of alcohol toxicity, believing in myths can be dangerous. Here are a few things you do not want to do if you suspect someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning.
- Don’t give the person coffee, because caffeine can dehydrate. They won’t sober up.
- Don’t give them anything to eat or drink. They might choke.
- Don’t try to make the person throw up to get alcohol out of their system.
Alcohol can reduce a person’s body temperature, so don’t put them in a cold shower to try and wake them up. They could develop hypothermia.
Causes of Alcohol Toxicity
Someone may accidentally consume alcohol without realizing it. This can happen with children who might be attracted to that pretty bottle of liquid. Adults should ensure that alcoholic beverages are kept in a secure cabinet and out of the reach of children.
Make sure that you keep any substance that contains alcohol away from children. Mouthwash, for example, can be deadly in the hands of a child. In fact, cosmetics and personal care products are the most common substances that cause poisoning in young children.
In adults, the most common cause of alcohol toxicity is binge drinking. This is a period of heavy drinking when the person consumes more alcohol than the liver can process.
Binge drinking is defined as five or more alcoholic drinks in two hours for men. It’s slightly less for women – four or more drinks in that same period of time.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams or higher.
Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Levels and Their Effects
When a person’s BAC reaches 0.08, they’re considered legally drunk. In the case of someone with alcohol poisoning, their BAC can reach levels far beyond that.
Here’s a quick look at the behaviors and health risks associated with specific BAC levels.
- 08%: At this level,a person becomes uncoordinated. Their balance and reaction times are affected. Short-term memory loss may occur.
- 1%: Theperson becomes visibly intoxicated. Speech is slurred. Coordination is poor.
- 15%: Walking and talking are difficult. The person may fall and injure themselves. They may vomit.
- 2%: Common symptoms at this level are confusion and disorientation. The person may need help standing and walking. The person may vomit. The gag reflex is impaired, which could cause choking. Blackouts can occur at this level.
- 25%: All physical, mental, emotional and sensory functions are impaired.
- 3%: The brain begins to shut down. The person will have difficulty recognizing people or places and will remember virtually nothing.
- 0.4% and higher: The person may lapse into a coma or die because their heart or breathing will suddenly stop.
Treatment for Alcohol Toxicity
Immediate medical treatment may save a person’s life. In this case, the medical team will focus on the person’s breathing and heart rate. Some people will need to be intubated to help them breathe.
Patients may need to receive intravenous fluids to rehydrate them, along with vitamins and glucose to raise their blood sugar. Low blood sugar can cause seizures.
Medical detox may be required to help treat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Those can be life-threatening.
Not everyone who develops alcohol poisoning abuses alcohol on a regular basis. However, alcoholics do have a higher risk of alcohol toxicity. That’s why follow up care and perhaps in-patient rehab may be appropriate.
It’s important for friends and relatives to recognize the signs of alcoholism in their loved one and talk about treatment options.
Preventing Alcohol Toxicity
The simplest way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to abstain from alcohol. If you do want to enjoy a drink or two, then take care to moderate your drinking. Limit your drinks to one per hour and drink water in between.
Eat something before and while you’re having an alcoholic drink. Food will help your body absorb the alcohol.
Don’t play drinking games or enter drinking competitions that encourage people to consume more alcohol than is safe.
Limit your drinking. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and two per day for men.
Alcohol and Drugs Don’t Mix
Taking medications with alcohol can increase your chances of developing alcohol toxicity. For example, mixing alcohol with pain medication like oxycodone can be deadly.
Pain relievers suppress areas in the brain that regulate breathing and heart rate, just like alcohol does. Combining them intensifies their effects. You could overdose even if you only drink a small amount of alcohol.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, we’re here to help. The Acceptance Recovery Center staff is available to answer any questions you have about treatment options. Please reach out to us any time.
Dr. Greg Gale has been practicing and providing leadership in the field of psychiatry, substance use, and integrated care in the Phoenix metropolitan area for over 11 years. He joins us from his role as a national medical director overseeing behavioral health, substance use, and integrated care services for Humana Behavioral Health. Previously, he was CMO and VP of Clinical Services at Partners in Recovery, a not-for-profit behavioral health and substance use service organization, which operates five clinics throughout Maricopa County.