Alcohol Poisoning/Overdose: Signs, Causes, Risk Factors, Treatment and Prevention
24 Jan 2018
Alcohol, if consumed in moderate amounts, can actually have some health benefits including decreased risk of a heart attack and diabetes. However, if its use gets out of hand, a number of problems are produced including deterioration of physical and mental health, addiction and even death. Ethanol, the intoxicating substance in alcoholic drinks is metabolized by the liver. As the amount alcohol consumed exceeds, the extra workload is suffered by the liver. It has to work harder to metabolize the exceedingly high amounts of ethanol administrated in the body. Over time, the liver cells suffer damage which causes the formation of scar tissue and the condition is termed as fibrosis. As the alcohol abuse is continued, fibrosis progresses into cirrhosis which may finally turn into liver cancer or liver failure causing the death of the patient. Alcohol is the most frequently consumed drink in United States. Its legal status and easy availability is responsible for the large number of cases of abuse.
According to statistics released by National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 88,000 people die due to alcohol related health issues every year in United States. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that about 86.4% American adults have consumed alcohol at some point in their life. The even more alarming finding was that about 26.9% of American adults indulged in binge drinking during the past month. As per National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that raises the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08g/dl. In women, this BAC is achieved after 4 drinks while in men, it takes 5 drinks, consumed within a period of 2 hours. Some people are not even aware that how much alcohol is too much for them. According to SAMHSA, 5 or more days of binge drinking within a single month define as heavy drinking. Considering these stats and facts, the high probability of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) comes as no surprise. Alcohol Use Disorder is any condition where the alcohol consumption of the user causes him harm or health issues. If a loved one is binge drinking, identified with an alcohol use disorder or is an alcoholic, it is important to get them immediate help. Alcoholism is an alarming condition which eventually proves to be fatal. Overdosing is a serious risk associated with excessive alcohol consumption. It is important to know your safe limits, and if an overdose occurs, how to deal with it.
Alcohol poisoning is defined as a BAC, beyond safe levels, caused by excessive alcohol consumption. It results into toxicity because the liver is not able to detoxify alcohol as fast as it is being administrated in the body.
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning:
Even after the alcohol consumption has been cut off after a phase of binge drinking, BAC continues to rise as the alcohol is slowly absorbed into the bloodstream via gastrointestinal tract. It may take some time for the symptoms to appear and they continue to get worse as the BAC is further increased. Some common signs and symptoms experienced in case of alcohol poisoning include:
- Hypothermia (unusually low temperature of the body)
- Depressed respiration
- Mental confusion
- Pale or bluish skin
In more severe cases:
- The breathing may stop altogether
- The patient may experience a heart attack
- Body temperature may drop to dangerously low levels
- Severe dehydration may occur as the water is used for the detoxification of alcohol, it may even cause permanent brain damage
- Glucose levels may fall dangerously low
- The patient may go into coma
The final stage is death if immediate medical care is not provided.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Poisoning:
Even though anyone who consumes excessive amounts of alcohol is at a risk of developing alcohol poisoning, some factors contribute to further increase the risk.
- Older people with slow metabolism are more likely to overdose on alcohol.
- Women are at a greater risk of poisoning since they require less drinks compared to men to achieve dangerous BAC.
- Smaller body size is related to production of more potent effects of alcohol and slow clearance rate.
- People tolerant to alcohol may consume dangerously high amounts in an attempt to cope with tolerance which may result into an overdose.
- Health conditions such as diabetes, liver diseases etc further increase the risk of alcohol poisoning.
- Multisubstance abuse, for example, combining alcohol with benzodiazepines, greatly increases the probability of an overdose.
Causes of Alcohol Poisoning:
As obvious, excessive binge drinking is the reason for alcohol poisoning/toxicity. The ability of the liver to detoxify alcohol at a given time is limited. When high amounts of alcohol are administrated into the body, it fails to clear it all off in required time which results into poisoning and disturbed functions of the body. The greater the amount of alcohol consumed, the higher will be the blood levels of alcohol resulting into adverse reaction exhibited by the body.
Treatment of Alcohol Poisoning:
If a person is spotted with the symptoms of an overdose, it is important to provide them immediate medical care by calling 911. Meanwhile, patient should be cared for by applying the following measures:
- Try to keep the patient awake by talking to them or making them indulge in some activity. Unconsciousness may further complicate the case.
- As alcohol poisoning causes dehydration, give the patient water if they are in a condition to drink it.
- Try to keep the patient in sitting position. If not possible, turn their head to side as they lie down.
- Keep the patient sitting, or lying, do not make them walk.
- Make sure the patient is breathing.
- Check if there is anything blocking breathing. The patient may choke on their own vomit.
After the provision of emergency care, the patient may be admitted to the hospital where they are further treated.
- Fluids or medications can be administrated intravenously.
- Breathing can be aided via a mask or nasal tube.
- Nutrients and glucose may be given.
Prevention of Alcohol Overdose:
The only definite way to prevent an alcohol overdose is to limit the alcohol consumption to safe levels or the stoppage of alcohol consumption altogether. Binge drinking greatly increases the risk for an overdose. It is important to educate people about the hazards of binge drinking and alcohol poisoning to avoid losing anymore lives to alcohol related complications.