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Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol is a volatile substance, and an individual can become poisoned by it if they consume an excessive amount within a short period of time.

This can be extremely dangerous, potentially putting an individual’s life at risk. It requires immediate medical attention, and be being able to identify when it has occurred is very important.

How does alcohol poisoning occur?

When an individual consumes alcohol, it is primarily filtered by the liver. The body is able to absorb and metabolise it very quickly – much faster than it is able to process food.

However, it can only cope with so much at a time. The liver gets through about 1 unit of alcohol every hour, and this is why there are recommended alcohol limits.

Men and women are recommended to ingest no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, and that quantity should be consumed over the course of several days.

If an individual surpasses these recommendations, however, and drinks an excessive quantity of alcohol within a very short period of time, the alcohol entering their body can quickly build up.

The body will not be able to process it quick enough, meaning a large quantity of alcohol will accumulate in the blood. When this occurs, important areas of the brain begin to shut down, causing an array of dangerous effects.

Who is vulnerable?

Young people and teenagers are the demographic most likely to fall victim to alcohol poisoning [1]. This is a result of their tendency to drink high volumes of alcohol in short periods of time.

This behaviour tends to arise from binge drinking in party or university settings.

Signs and symptoms

Alcohol poisoning impacts the body in a very serious way, reducing individual’s capacity to take care of themselves. Some of the initial symptoms include:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Lack of coordination
  • Being unconscious and cannot be woken up
  • Vomiting
  • Being unresponsive when conscious
  • Slow heart rate and breathing
  • Paleness – possibly due to poor blood flow to the organs [2]
  • Lack of bladder or bowel control

What are the dangers?

While the symptoms listed above can be uncomfortable, alcohol poisoning can also have much more dangerous effects. In some instances, they can be life-threatening.

Some of these include:

  • Heart attack
  • Choking on vomit
  • Stopping breathing
  • Brain damage as a result of dehydration
  • Seizures triggered by low blood sugar levels
  • Vomiting blood
  • Hypothermia, possibly causing cardiac arrest
  • Brain damage

These effects can kill an individual, and in some cases may even put them into a coma.

Risk Factors

How alcohol impacts the body often depends on the characteristics of an individual and their actions. Several factors can have an influence on whether alcohol poisoning is likely to occur, as well as how severe potential symptoms might be.

1. Body

Alcohol is absorbed differently by different people, and this is largely due to the traits of their physical body.

In general, larger bodies have more blood and water in them. This means that the alcohol concentration within their bloodstream tends to be lower than that of someone with a smaller body.

As a result, it would take more alcohol to build up a high enough concentration to cause poisoning.

2. Food

In a similar way, the presence of food can influence alcohol absorption. In the stomach, food is able to stem the flow of alcohol by absorbing some of it.

This process slows the passage of alcohol through the body, stopping it from getting to the small intestine and liver too quickly.

Those who do not eat before drinking have nothing to cause this delay, and so alcohol arrives in higher concentrations when it gets to the liver.

3. Other substances

Alcohol is known to have an impact on the strength and effects of other drugs when taken at the same time.

In the same way, alcohol’s effects on an individual can be intensified if another substance is taken alongside it, such as a sedative taken to aid sleep.

This can potentially result in more serious effects occurring.

How to help

Alcohol poisoning can be frightening when it happens to a friend or loved one, but acting fast is the best way to help them.

If you find someone who is displaying the signs of alcohol poisoning, immediately phone 999 and request an ambulance.

During the time before the ambulance arrives, try to ensure that the individual is sat up and awake. Attempt to wake them, and if they are able to drink, keep them hydrated.

In the event that they are unconscious and cannot be woken up, place them on their side and into the recovery position.

Keep the individual warm and reassure them that you are present until the ambulance arrives.

Things to avoid

There are certain things you must not do if you are attempting to help an individual who has alcohol poisoning.

1. Leave them

Firstly, do not leave them to sleep off their drunkenness. While it may seem like they will recover overnight, the alcohol levels in their system will continue to rise following their last drink.

This means the severity of their symptoms might increase, and so their condition may worsen after you leave them. Disorientation and drowsiness may quickly turn into something much more serious.

2. Sober them up

Do not attempt to sober the individual up. Often, people will try to improve the condition of a drunk friend by giving them coffee or food in order to reduce their drunkenness.

In the event of alcohol poisoning, these things will be ineffective and potentially dangerous. Anything the individual ingests poses the risk of choking them, and coffee will only dehydrate the person more.

Putting them under a freezing cold shower might also seem like a way to jolt them back to sobriety, but this should not be attempted. The body temperature drops significantly during alcohol poisoning, posing the threat of hypothermia. A cold shower would only increase this risk.

3. Make them sick

When someone is drunk, it can be considered helpful in some instances to get them to be sick in order to get the harmful substances out of their system.

When alcohol poisoning has occurred, the gag reflex often stops working, meaning they will not be able to properly be sick. They could choke on their vomit, or your fingers, as a result.

4. Encourage them to move

‘Walking it off’ might seem like a viable method of getting an individual up and out of their predicament. When drunk, it can sometimes energise them.

However, alcohol poisoning severely inhibits an individual’s balance and self-awareness. If stood up and made to move around, they might fall or get into an accident which could worsen their situation.

Treating Alcohol Poisoning

Once an ambulance has arrived and checked the condition of the individual, the medical professionals will take them to the hospital.

There, the condition of the individual will be monitored as the alcohol passes from their system. In the event of the alcohol causing serious damage, treatment will be administered.

A poisoned individual will likely require support in maintaining chemical balance within their body. As a result, doctors may attach a drip to supply them with water, blood sugar, and certain vitamins that they are lacking.

If the individual is struggling to breathe, a tube might be put into their windpipe to remove whatever is blocking the flow of air. This could be vomit or blood.

In some circumstances, the toxic substances might need to be pumped out of the individual’s stomach, and their urine and faeces may need assistance from their system.

[1] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-dangers-of-alcohol-overdose

[2] https://www.pacificu.edu/support-safety/support-pacific/alcohol-other-drugs/how-help

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