Acting quickly in response to a case of alcohol poisoning can save a life. Your first step should be to call 911 or, if you’re traveling, your local emergency number. Stay with the patient until the paramedics arrive.
- Keep the patient awake
- Get them to drink water
- Roll them onto their side if they are unconscious or nearly so
- Keep them warm. High blood alcohol percentages decrease body temperature and the body can go into shock
Alcohol poisoning victims face two major risks. Respiratory depression, where they stop breathing, and choking. In the latter case, it’s important to ensure the individual can vomit freely. If someone is comatose and on their back, vomiting can result in choking and death.
You Should Not:
- Attempt to shock the person. Movies show dumping alcohol poisoning and overdose victims in a cold shower or ice. This could kill them.
- Offer food or medications. Sudden shocks can be dangerous and can cause death.
- Offer caffeine of any kind. It can cause sudden death. It can also cause dehydration
- Attempt to make the individual throw up. While this might prevent the person from getting more drunk, any effects of alcohol they are experiencing now are from alcohol they’ve already absorbed. Forcing someone to throw up will not help them sober up. However, it could cause them to choke and die.
Even if someone is in a potentially embarrassing or incriminating situation, you should never attempt to just get them to sleep it off. If someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, they likely need immediate medical attention or they will die.
Once paramedics arrive, they will use oxygen therapy, an IV drip, and glucose with vitamins to stabilize the central nervous system. In most cases, a stomach pump is also necessary to safely remove any alcohol left in the stomach. These treatments, in this order, mean the person suffering from alcohol poisoning is first stabilized before new shocks (like emptying the stomach) are introduced.
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Recognizing alcohol poisoning, also known as alcohol overdose, is one of the key steps to reacting quickly. Unfortunately, people can suffer from a range of different symptoms. Some might simply appear to fall asleep. However, most will show significant drunkenness and will appear to be sick or to have the flu. Call 911 immediately if the person:
- Has blue tinging around the lips or under fingernails
- Is choking on vomit
- Is having seizures
- Is having difficulty breathing
Assess the situation quickly and strongly consider calling 911 if:
- The individual is no longer able to walk
- The individual passes out
- They are suddenly very cold or clammy
- They are very confused or disoriented
- Their pulse is irregular or very slow
- They lose control of their bladder
Alcohol poisoning can look like someone is simply very drunk and needs to sleep. In most cases, you can tell they are more drunk than is reasonably healthy. For example, many people overdosing on alcohol are pale, clammy, and look sick. Confusion and disorientation are also common.
What is Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning results from alcohol blood toxicity, normally when a person’s blood alcohol level becomes so high the central nervous system starts to shut down. As alcohol permeates the brain, it slows down functions. You first notice this with slurring and loss of coordination. A person stumbling around isn’t necessarily in danger, but they’re certainly incapacitated and can easily hurt themselves. As this progresses, it worsens, so that breathing, the heart rate, and temperature regulation are all affected.
A very drunk person is cold, has difficulty breathing, and may have a hyperactive heart rate. This means the individual is vulnerable to hypo and hyperthermia (overheating, extreme cold), seizures through the central nervous system, choking, heart attack, and simply stopping breathing.
Alcohol poisoning typically requires a very high blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.250-0.399% depending on the individual’s metabolism. Factors such as body size, weight, body fat, gender, and age affect this as well. Factors like metabolism also affect how many drinks it takes to get to this stage. Therefore, what causes alcohol poisoning in one person may be simply inebriating in another.
How Common is Alcohol Poisoning?
Today, most Americans drink. In fact, 86% of us drink at least occasionally. A further 28.5% of us binge drink regularly. That means having four or more drinks in the course of an hour. That more than a quarter of the U.S. adult population is vulnerable to regular heavy drinking, alcohol tolerance, alcohol dependency, and addiction. And, for individuals who heavily binge drink, alcohol poisoning is a common and deadly problem.
While alcohol is the most accepted drug in the United States, it’s also dangerous. Alcohol is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the country, resulting in 3.5% of the total, or 85,000+ people, when alcohol-related traffic accidents are taken into the equation. Ignoring automobiles, that number is still a staggering 20,000+ each year, with physical and mental health problems including heart attack, stroke, liver failure, and alcohol poisoning. In fact, alcohol poisoning makes up more than 10% of those deaths, with more than 2,200 fatalities each year.
If you or a loved one regularly binges alcohol, understanding alcohol poisoning first aid and what to do in case of an emergency could save a life.
While alcohol poisoning is, by no means, absolute proof that someone has an alcohol use disorder or problem, it does mean they’ve consumed a lot more alcohol than they should have, in far too short a time. This might have been a one-time thing, especially with first time or new drinkers. However, it’s often indicative of a pattern of alcohol use and abuse. If you or a loved one is regularly abusing alcohol to the point where alcohol poisoning becomes an issue or you’re concerned enough to preemptively look up what to do, you likely need help.
Alcohol is normalized to the point where you’re expected to drink. But millions of us have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Getting help is the first step to resolving that relationship and building a healthy life, with either healthy alcohol use or abstinence. It’s up to you to assess if yourself or a loved one has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Some of those symptoms can be constantly thinking or talking about alcohol, heavily binging as often as possible, uncontrollable drinking, or drinking till the point of blackout. Detoxification, alcohol rehabilitation treatment, behavioral therapy, and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can all help. The idea is to help you through detox, help you build coping mechanisms, and introduce a healthy and sustainable lifestyle that doesn’t include alcohol.
Alcohol kills thousands every year. Taking steps to get drinking habits under control and to build a healthy relationship with alcohol is the best way to prevent that.