While the word “overdose” typically makes you think of opioids, it is also possible to overdose on alcohol. In fact, alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning kills about 2000 Americans every year. Alcohol poisoning happens when alcohol builds up in your system faster than your liver can process it. As alcohol builds up, it impairs more of your brain until the areas responsible for breathing, heart rate, and body temperature become impaired, causing physiological changes that can be fatal. There are news stories every year about college students–often pledges for fraternities or sororities–die of alcohol poisoning after binge drinking at a party. Although these are tragic cases, alcohol poisoning is most deadly among men between the ages of 45 and 54.
The average person can only metabolize the amount of alcohol in about half a pint of beer every hour. This varies quite a bit from person to person and women typically metabolize alcohol more slowly than men. Whatever alcohol your liver can’t process stays in your bloodstream and affects your other organs, especially your brain. Too much alcohol in your bloodstream suppresses your central nervous system, impairing your breathing and gag reflex. This puts you at risk for suffocation or choking.
Since your liver is working hard to process the alcohol in your blood, alcohol poisoning isn’t so much a function of how much you drink, but rather how fast you drink it. The more quickly you drink, the more your blood alcohol content rises. That means you are at the highest risk for alcohol poisoning when you binge-drink. Binge drinking is typically defined as four drinks at a time for women and five drinks for men–less than people typically assume. If you have three shots in the first hour at a party, you’ve probably already drank more than your liver can process for the rest of the night.
Alcohol poisoning is dangerous and if you think someone might have alcohol poisoning, get medical help as soon as possible. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include passing out and becoming unresponsive, not waking up even if you shake him or say his name. His breathing may be slow or abnormal, he may be confused, and he may have bluish or pale skin. Vomiting is a real concern since alcohol poisoning impairs your gag reflex. Someone with severe alcohol poisoning may stop breathing completely, his blood sugar may drop causing seizures, or his body temperature might drop, which can cause a heart attack.
If someone exhibits these symptoms, call an ambulance and stay with the person. Try to keep him awake. If he must lie down, make sure he’s lying on his side to prevent choking. Give him water but not coffee and certainly not alcohol. Don’t try to make him walk. Alcohol poisoning is typically treated with IV fluids, oxygen, and sometimes anti-seizure medication.
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