Alcohol poisoning hapens when a person drinks a toxic amount of alcohol, usually over a short period of time (binge drinking).
Being poisoned by alcohol could damage your health or even put your life in danger.
It’s imperative to avoid misusing alcohol and to be aware of how much you’re drinking and the effect this could have on your body.
What are Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning
The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include:
- severely slurred speech
- loss of co-ordination
- irregular or slow breathing
- hypothermia (pale or blue-tinged skin as a result of low body temperature)
- stupor (being conscious but unresponsive)
- passing out and being unconscious
In the most severe conditons, alcohol poisoning can result to coma, brain damage and death.
When to seek medical help
If you suspect alcohol poisoning, try and get the ambulance. While you’re waiting:
- try to keep them sitting up and awake
- give them water if they can drink it
- if they’ve passed out, lie them on their side in the recovery position and check they’re breathing normally
- keep them warm
- stay with them and monitor their symptoms
Never lte a person alone to ‘sleep it off’. The level of alcohol in a person’s blood can continue to grow for up to 30-40 minutes after their last drink. This can make their symptoms to suddenly become much more severe.
You also shouldn’t offer them coffee or any more alcohol, put them under a cold shower or walk them around. These will not help someone ‘sober up’ and may even be dangerous.
How alcohol poisoning is handled in hospital
In hospital, the person will be carefully monitored until the alcohol has left their system. If treatment is needed, this may include:
- inserting a tube into their mouth and windpipe (intubation) – to open the airway, and take out any blockages and help with breathing
- fitting an intravenous drip, which passes directly into a vein – to top up their water, blood sugar and vitamin levels
- fitting a catheter (thin tube) to their bladder – to drain urine straight into a bag so they don’t get themselves wet
Dangers of alcohol poisoning
If a person is poisoned by alcohol they could:
- Get choked on their vomit
- stop breathing
- have a heart attack
- inhale vomit, leading to fatal lung damage
- get severely dehydrated, which can create permanent brain damage in extreme cases
- Have more severe hypothermia
- have seizures (fits) as a result of lowered blood sugar levels
Repeated vomiting and retching can result to the vomiting of blood as a result of a torn blood vessel (Mallory-Weiss tear) at the junction of the stomach and gullet.
Other related risks
Drinking too much alcohol could affect a person’s judgement and put them in situations where their health and safety are greatly at risk. For example, they may:
- have an accident or be injured
- get involved in violent or antisocial behaviour
- have unsafe sex, which can result to an unplanned pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- lose personal possessions
How alcohol poisoning happens
Each time you drink alcohol, your liver has to filter it out of your blood. Alcohol is absorbed quickly into your body (much quicker than food), but the body can only process around one unit of alcohol per hour.
If you get to drink a lot of alcohol over a short space of time, such as on a night out, your body won’t have time to process it all. Alcohol poisoning can also happen if a person drinks household products that contain alcohol – children sometimes drink these by accident.
The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream – known as your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) – will rise.
The effects of alcohol on the body
Around 1-2 units
- your heart rate will speed up and your blood vessels will expand
- you get the warm, sociable feeling linked with moderate drinking
Around 4-6 units
- your decision making and judgement will begin to be affected, making you lose your inhibitions and get more reckless
- the cells in your nervous system will begin to be affected, making you feel lightheaded
- your co-ordination will be affected and your reaction time may get slower
Around 8-9 units
- your reaction times will be much slower
- your speech will be slurred
- your vision will start to lose focus
- your liver will not be able to remove all of the alcohol overnight, so it’s likely you’ll wake up with a hangover
At this stage you should seriously consider not drinking any more alcohol.
If you do:
Around 10-12 units
- your co-ordination will get seriously impaired, placing you at high risk of having an accident
- you may stagger around or feel unstable on your feet
- you’ll feel drowsy or dizzy
- the amount of alcohol in your body will start to reach toxic (poisonous) levels
- you may have to go to the toilet more often as your body attempts to quickly pass the alcohol out of your body in your urine
- you will be dehydrated in the morning, and probably have a severe headache
- the excess alcohol in your system may start to upset your digestive system, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or indigestion
More than 12 units
- you’re at high risk of having alcohol poisoning, particularly if you’re drinking lots of units in a short space of time
- the alcohol can start to interfere with the automatic functions of your body, such as your breathing, heart rate and gag reflex
- you’re at risk of losing consciousness
Recommended alcohol limits
If you drink most weeks, to lower your risk of harming your health:
- men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week
- Endeavor to spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week
One unit of alcohol is equivalent to:
- half a pint of lower-strength lager, beer or cider (ABV 3.6%)
- a single small shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)
You should also avoid binge drinking as it’s dangerous and puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning.