An Overview of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol Can Poison Your Body

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Alcohol poisoning is more common than most people realize. It can cause blacking out, as well as other effects, such as pale, clammy skin, vomiting, and seizures.

Alcohol is a substance that affects many physical functions—including blood pressure, breathing, and a person's level of awareness. Most people can physically manage moderate amounts of alcohol, but everyone's ability to metabolize alcohol is different. Also, being able to tolerate more and more alcohol does not mean that you are less likely to experience alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency, and it is usually recognized at a critical stage when urgent medical attention is needed. Survival is possible if immediate medical care is provided, but alcohol poisoning can result in death or permanent disability if it is not treated.

Symptoms

Slurred speech, instability when walking, confusion, and nausea are all signs of impending alcohol poisoning. Often, these signs are described as being drunk. At this stage, alcohol poisoning can progress rapidly, resulting in changes in consciousness.

it is important to realize that someone who is drunk can experience worsening symptoms within a few hours. When alcohol poisoning occurs, the effects can be dramatic.

Getting Medical Help

If you are with a person who may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, it is best to call for medical help as soon as you notice the signs.

Signs of worsening alcohol poisoning include:

Complications

Alcohol poisoning can cause complications during sleep or while awake. For this reason, it is not recommended for someone who is drunk to be left alone.

Anyone experiencing alcohol poisoning may vomit and choke while passed out or sleeping, with potentially fatal consequences. And falling or other serious injuries due to impaired balance or lack of judgment are common with alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning can make a person blackout—with loss of consciousness and often an inability to remember many of the events that occurred.

Of course, your own safety is important. If you are concerned that someone who is drunk could hurt you, it is best to maintain a safe distance while waiting for professional help.

Causes

Alcohol poisoning affects the brain, blood vessels, and liver. Rapid fluid ingestion alters the fluid concentration in your body, potentially disrupting your fluid and electrolyte balance.

Effects on the Brain

Alcohol disrupts a person's balance due to its effects on the brainstem and cerebellum. Not only does this cause a lack of physical coordination, it also contributes to alcohol-induced nausea and vomiting.

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means that it acts on the brain to decrease your response time and level of consciousness. This effect decreases the gag reflex, which can make you choke on your own vomit—leading to a choking emergency.

As a CNS depressant, a high blood concentration of alcohol can inhibit respiration, usually resulting in a slow, shallow breathing pattern.

Effects on Blood Vessels

When you have alcohol in your system, you may experience vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels), which decreases blood pressure. Vasodilation also causes blood to rush to the skin—potentially leading to hypothermia.

Vasodilation interferes with the body's ability to compensate for bleeding and shock, which means that blood loss can more severe consequences on your health than it would if you weren't experiencing alcohol poisoning.

Chronic Alcohol Effects on the Liver

While many heavy drinkers believe that they have learned to 'hold" alcohol, the changes going on inside the body make chronic drinkers susceptible to alcohol poisoning.

The liver, which normally metabolizes and detoxifies alcohol, is damaged by chronic alcohol use. When you can't metabolize alcohol efficiently, the harmful effects on your body occur quickly, have a more dramatic effect, and last longer.

Chronic alcohol use causes brain atrophy (shrinking). This effect reduces brain function, making the impact of alcohol ingestion on coordination, reaction time, and respiration more profound.

Alcohol weakens the walls of blood vessels and makes them more susceptible to rupture and bleeding. The combination of these factors leads to an increase in hemorrhage (bleeding
) in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Compounded with vasodilation and an increased likelihood of becoming injured while drunk, alcohol poisoning increases the risk of profuse bleeding.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of alcohol poisoning is complex, requiring a physical examination, assessment of vital signs, and possibly diagnostic tests. There are a number of issues that interfere with the timely diagnosis of alcohol poisoning. And delays can worsen the consequences.

Reasons for Diagnostic Delays

Alcohol poisoning can appear similar to many life-threatening conditions. For example, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a stroke, or a seizure can cause problems with speech and level of consciousness that may be confused with alcohol consumption.

And a person experiencing alcohol poisoning may have other medical issues, such as a head injury or a drug overdose. These other conditions can complicate the symptoms, making it more challenging to recognize alcohol poisoning.

Friends and acquaintances may have a tendency to overlook intoxicated victims, believing that the alcohol will wear off. Severely intoxicated people often smell of alcohol and may have undesirable attributes, like incontinence, that make them unpleasant to be around.

Underage drinkers, or even adults who are concerned about their reputation, may want to avoid attention for fear of getting into trouble with authorities, parents, or work colleagues. This often delays the diagnosis of alcohol poisoning, worsening the outcome.

Diagnostic Assessment

Your physical examination can help your medical team determine whether you have alcohol poisoning. Blood pressure, breathing rate, pupil size, and responsiveness are all considered in the assessment of alcohol poisoning.

Accurate diagnosis of alcohol poisoning relies on a clinical examination and diagnostic tests. Blood and urine tests can measure alcohol concentration, providing helpful clues about whether alcohol poisoning is the cause of a person's symptoms. Sometimes, however, alcohol may not be present in blood and urine even when the impact of alcohol poisoning still has not improved.

In some situations, your medical team may order imaging studies, such as a brain computerized tomography (CT) scan to see if there is head trauma or bleeding.

And sometimes, electroencephalography (EEG) is needed to differentiate between alcohol poisoning and a seizure.

Treatment

Calling 911 or going to the nearest hospital are the only safe ways to treat alcohol poisoning. The most important first aid for alcohol poisoning—after calling 911—is to keep the victim safe until help arrives.

Once at the hospital, and sometimes on the way to the hospital, a person who is experiencing alcohol poisoning generally receives intravenous (IV) fluids to replace the fluid loss from vomiting and to balance the alcohol-induced fluid and electrolyte disruption in the body.

In some instances, oxygen may be administered by placing a mask on the face. Mechanical ventilation may be necessary for respiratory support if you can't control your breathing. Medications to maintain adequate blood pressure may be needed.

Removal of alcohol and toxins directly through a tube placed in the stomach (a process referred to as stomach pumping) can prevent further absorption of alcohol. And dialysis, which is a process by which blood is filtered of waste and toxins, may be necessary for severe circumstances.

If you are having seizures, a short term anticonvulsant medication can help stop seizures. And treatment for any injuries, such as head trauma or bone fractures, is often necessary as well.

There are several common myths about treating alcohol poisoning. For example, some people suggest drinking coffee or taking a cold shower. These methods cannot remove excess alcohol from the body and they cannot reduce the effects of alcohol poisoning.

Consent for Treatment

Intoxication affects the way consent works in emergency medical situations. Normally, victims of a medical emergency must give permission for a rescuer to help. This requires understanding the necessity of treatment, knowing the possible side effects of treatment, and being informed of the consequences of refusing help.

That's a lot of information. It's particularly difficult if your thinking is impaired by alcohol. Because of the alcohol-induced impairment, it is often assumed that someone who is intoxicated would accept help if able to do so. This form of permission is called implied consent.

A Word From Verywell

Alcohol poisoning is a serious matter. It can affect anyone at any age. One of the biggest dangers when it comes to alcohol poisoning is the belief that you can tolerate a large amount of alcohol just because you have consumed that amount in the past. Your health can change, the pace of your drinking or the alcohol concentration may vary, and even your ability to metabolize alcohol can change from one day to another.

The bottom line is that if you suspect alcohol poisoning, you should call for medical attention immediately rather than waiting to see if things get better on their own.

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