What is alcohol poisoning? It’s way worse than getting drunk

Philadelphia bar
The party eventually stops.
Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro

“How much damage did I really do to myself when I blacked out drunk last week?”

Damage? You are actually lucky to be alive. Really. Alcohol Poisoning, a potentially a life-threatening emergency, needs to be distinguished from alcohol intoxication (getting drunk).

To give you some perspective, the CDC reports that from 2006-2010 there were an average of 49,544 deaths annually attributed to acute alcohol poisoning. This is more people than were killed by automobile accidents, firearms or drug overdoses in any given year. And the World Health Organization just released a reporting stating that alcohol-related deaths are only going up.

Alcohol consumption results in a spectrum of intoxication. This ranges from mildly pleasant relaxation after drinking a single cocktail, beer or glass of wine after work or at a sporting event, to an alcohol overdose in which judgment, cognitive and physical abilities are impaired. There are a number of factors that vary amongst individuals, including age, amount of food consumed, rate of alcohol consumption and ethnicity, any of which may influence the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol poisoning generally occurs when a large amount of alcohol is consumed in a short period of time, overwhelming the body’s ability to metabolize it. As the level of alcohol in the blood stream rises, so do its effects on the brain and nervous system. Confusion and unconsciousness may occur, resulting in decreased rate of breathing, slow heart rate and lowering of body temperature (hypothermia). Blood alcohol may continue to rise even after a victim has stopped drinking, as the stomach and intestine continue to absorb undigested contents. Vomiting and/or seizures may further compromise breathing and result in a lack of oxygen in this life-threatening scenario.

If you suspect a friend or loved one has had too much to drink after a binge of four or five drinks in a short period of time one to two hours), do not assume that person will be fine after sleeping it off. A cold shower or black coffee will do nothing to help. If there is any doubt about the intoxicated person’s safety, call 911 and get immediate medical attention.


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