Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning can often mean the difference between life and death. It's important to know the signs and know when to seek medical assistance!

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol Poisoning occurs when too much alcohol is consumed too quickly. The consequences are very serious.

The nerves that control involuntary processes such as breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex are depressed by alcohol, resulting in a slowing or even shut down of these functions. Alcohol irritates the stomach and thus may cause vomiting. If your gag reflex is depressed by the alcohol, you can choke if you vomit or aspirate vomit into your lungs, which can be fatal. Vomiting can also lead to dehydration.


Alcohol lowers your body temperature, even to levels that can cause cardiac arrest. Blood sugar is lowered by alcohol, possibly falling low enough to result in seizures. Coma and even death can result from these effects of alcohol. Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning is obviously critical in order to avoid or lessen these effects.


Causes of Alcohol Poisoning

(1) The main cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking. Binge drinking is particularly dangerous because it allows you to consume very large amounts of alcohol faster than your stomach absorbs it and therefore you can consume a fatal amount before you pass out.

***It's important to know that signs of alcohol poisoning may not appear until up to 90 minutes after the person has stopped drinking.***

In general, more than one drink an hour is more than your liver can handle.

(2) A second cause is the accidental ingestion of alcohol-containing household products. This can include:

- Rubbing alcohol and some cleaning products
- Antifreeze, paints and/or solvents, which can contain methanol 
- Mouthwash and some medications, which contain ehtanol 

What Does Alcohol Do Once It's in Your Body?

Alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body. If you drink on an empty stomach, about 20% of it is absorbed and can reach your brain in less than 60 seconds.

The rest is processed by your liver. It takes about 60 minutes for your liver to process 1 drink.

Of course, the rate at which alcohol is metabolized varies from person to person depending on several factors:

(1) How much alcohol is consumed
(2) How quickly or slowly you consume alcohol
(3) Age. Younger individuals (late teens, 20's) may be more susceptible to alcohol poisoning because they may binge drink and may be first-time drinkers. 
(4) Your sex. It used to be that males were more likely to develop alcohol poisoning, but as more girls and women drink, that is changing. Also, females produce less of the enzyme that slows the absorption of alcohol in the stomach. 
(5) Size and weight. As you might expect, the shorter and thinner you are, the less alcohol you can process safely.
(6) Other health problems. Any illness or medical condition, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, etc. can make you more likely to be affected adversely by alcohol.
(7) The amount of food in your stomach. Having more food in your stomach can slow down the absorption of alcohol from your stomach, but only slightly. 
(8) Drugs. Drugs and alcohol, including prescription medication,don't mix! The combination greatly increases your chance of suffering from alcohol poisoning and dying. The combination causes approximately one third of the drug overdoses in the U.S. When seeking treatment for alcohol poisoning, be sure and tell the medical personnel if the person you are with has been taking any drugs, prescription or non-prescription.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

- Difficulty talking. 
- Difficulty walking.
- Slow or Irregular Breathing (count the breaths and make sure there are at least 8 breaths per minute)
- Cool or clammy skin, often looking blueish or extremely pale
- A body temperature that is lower than normal (lower than 98.6) 
- Vomiting 
- Confusion, stupor 
- Seizures 
- Unconsciousness (if you cannot awake a person from sleep, they are unconscious).

A person with alcohol poisoning may have some or all of these symptoms. You should seek treatment for alcohol poisoning even if all alcohol poisoning symptoms are not present. Without professional medical treatment, alcohol poisoning can cause brain damage or can be fatal. Call 911! A person with alcohol poisoning is at risk of dying if they are unconscious! 

Confirming Alcohol Poisoning

The history and physical exam are usually enough to diagnose alcohol poisoning. However, blood tests will probably be ordered by your doctor to check blood alcohol levels and to check for low blood glucose and vital organ function. A urinalysis can also be useful in diagnosing alcohol poisoning.

Treatment of Alcohol Poisoning

It probably goes without saying that treatment for alcohol poisoning is more successful the earlier it is administered. If you are with someone that you think could have alcohol poisoning, they need treatment right away or they could die. People who survive may have irreversible brain damage. Call 911 at once.

If there is still likely to be alcohol in the person's stomach, treatment for alcohol poisoning will include gastric lavage or "pumping the stomach". A tube will be inserted into the stomach via the mouth or nose so that small amounts of warm water can be passed into the stomach and then removed. This is to remove all contents of the stomach and is continued until that is accomplished.

The rest of treatment for alcohol poisoning involves supporting the patient until the alcohol is out of the body. This usually includes:

- IV fluids with vitamins to prevent dehydration
- breathing support such as oxygen and protection of the airway in an effort to prevent aspiration or breathing problems
- careful monitoring 
- If methanol or isopropyl alcohol has been accidentally ingested, kidney dialysis may be required to remove alcohol from the bloodstream faster

Prevention of Alcohol Poisoning

Of course, the best way to avoid any alcohol-related illness or injury is to avoid drinking alcohol. However, binge drinking (drinking 5 or more drinks in a row very quickly), in particular, is very dangerous. You should never engage in binge drinking.

IN AN EMERGENCY:

Call 911. Remember that even after someone has stopped drinking or is passed out, alcohol is continuing to be absorbed into the blood stream. Therefore, the body's alcohol level will continue to rise.

If the person is not unconscious, call 1(800)222-1222. This is a national number which will automatically transfer your call to your local poison control center. Your call will be kept confidential and they will help you determine if the person you are calling about needs to go straight to a hospital and have treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Remember the call is confidential so provide all the information you can in order to best help the person with alcohol poisoning. They will ask you such things as what type of alcohol was ingested and how much and when. If you have any of the answers, do not hesitate to tell them.

While you are waiting for help, there are some things that are very important to remember:

(1) Do not ever leave a person alone if they are unconscious.
(2) Do not try to make the person vomit. Remember, a person with alcohol poisoning does not have a normal gag reflex, and if you try to make them vomit, they could choke on or aspirate their vomit, which can cause death. 
Using Home Remedies as treatment for alcohol poisoning are usually ineffective and some can even be dangerous. The following DO NOT work:

- Black coffee 
- A cold shower is not a good thing to do. Cold can lead to shock and unconsciousness. 
- Walking it off 
- Sleeping it off — a terrible idea because the person can become unconscious while sleeping 

The Things You DO Need to Do:

- Stay with the person
- Try to keep them in a sitting or standing position 
- If the person must lie down, you must turn his/her head to the side and try to keep them awake! NEVER assume that the person will "sleep it off" or wouldn't want to be disturbed!
- If you cannot keep the person awake, call 911 and ask for IMMEDIATE assistance!
- Get help even if you think the person would want to hide the fact that he is drunk. Don't let your friends drive drunk and don't let them die of alcohol poisoning. You're not a friend if you don't seek professional treatment for alcohol poisoning!

Making the decision to seek help is the most difficult part of treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Concern about what others will think, possible legal problems for underage drinking, fear of the wrath of parents ...these are NOT reasons to not seek medical help! This is a life or death matter!

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