The causes, the symptoms and what you should do if alcohol poisoning occurs.
- Is alcohol a poison?
- Signs and symptoms
- Know what not to do
- How much do you have to drink
- When to get help
- What to do
- Staying in control
Black coffee won’t help. Nor will making someone sick. Or leaving them to sleep it off.
In fact, these traditional ways of trying to sober up a friend can do far more harm than good. Particularly if the friend is actually experiencing acute alcohol poisoning – which can be difficult to spot initially.
They may have only had a few drinks, or they could have downed several, but this isn’t always an indicator. By recognising the signs of acute alcohol poisoning and knowing what to do, you could save someone’s life.
Alcohol is a poison
Agatha Christie doesn’t write about it as a murder weapon and it doesn’t feature in Cluedo. But alcohol is a poison and can sometimes have lethal consequences.
Your body can only process one unit of alcohol an hour. Drink a lot in a short space of time and the amount of alcohol in the blood can stop the body from working properly.
- slow down your brain functions so you lose your sense of balance.
- irritate the stomach which causes vomiting and it stops your gag reflex from working properly – you can choke on, or inhale, your own vomit into your lungs.
- affect the nerves that control your breathing and heartbeat, it can stop both.
- dehydrate you, which can cause permanent brain damage.
- lower the body’s temperature, which can lead to hypothermia.
- lower your blood sugar levels, so you could suffer seizures.
Look out for the signs
It can be a very fine line. One minute your house guest is stupidly drunk, the next they’ve become dangerously intoxicated.
Being aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning is crucial, because if a person you care about is suffering from acute alcohol poisoning, they will be in no state to help themselves.
Look out for:
- Loss of coordination
- Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
- Blue-tinged or pale skin
- Low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Stupor – when someone’s conscious but unresponsive
- Unconsciousness – passing out
Know what not to do
Acute alcohol poisoning can be extremely dangerous. Your best intentions could make it worse. There are so many myths around about how to deal with people who’ve drunk to excess, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re aware of what NOT to do.
- Leave someone to sleep it off. The amount of alcohol in someone’s blood continues to rise even when they’re not drinking. That’s because alcohol in the digestive system carries on being absorbed into the bloodstream. Too much alcohol in the blood stops the body working properly.
- Give them a coffee. Alcohol dehydrates the body. Coffee will make someone who is already dehydrated even more so. Severe dehydration can cause permanent brain damage.
- Make them sick. Their gag reflex won’t be working properly which means they could choke on their vomit.
- Walk them around. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down your brain’s functions and affects your sense of balance. Walking them around might cause accidents.
- Put them under a cold shower. Alcohol lowers your body temperature, which could lead to hypothermia. A cold shower could make them colder than they already are.
- Let them drink any more alcohol. The amount of alcohol in their bloodstream could become dangerously high.
There is no minimum amount
It’s true that binge drinking is often the cause of alcohol poisoning. But not always.
It depends on your age, sex, size, weight, how fast you’ve been drinking, how much you’ve eaten, your general health and other drugs you might have taken.
This is why it is so important to stick within the government’s daily unit guidelines.
Don’t wait for all the symptoms to show before getting help
Better safe than sorry is the rule for alcohol poisoning. If you think someone might be experiencing it, even if you have doubts, call 999 for an ambulance.
Every weekend, hundreds of people are taken into hospital with acute alcohol poisoning. Medical staff will monitor people who have less severe alcohol poisoning closely, until it’s safe for them to go home. If it’s more serious, they could:
- insert a tube into their windpipe to help them breathe.
- put them on a drip to top up their body’s water, blood sugar and vitamin levels.
- fit a catheter – a tube that allows them to empty their bladder straight into a bag.
- pump the stomach by flushing fluids through a tube inserted into the nose or mouth.
- More than 36,200 people were admitted to hospital because of the toxic effect of alcohol in England in 2011/13 (16,600 men and 19,600 women) – that’s nearly 700 every week (1).
- 360 people died from accidental alcohol poisoning in England in 2011 (2).
- From 2007-2010, 20,000 under 18s were admitted to hospital in England as a result of drinking alcohol (3).
Five things to do if someone is showing signs of alcohol poisoning
- Try to keep them awake and sitting up.
- Give them some water, if they can drink it.
- Lie them on their side in the recovery position if they’ve passed out, and check they’re breathing properly.
- Keep them warm.
- Stay with them and monitor their symptoms.
Staying in control
Drinking within the government’s lower risk guidelines will help keep your drinking in control. Here are three ways you can cut back:
Here are two ways you can cut back and keep your drinking under control
- Eat up. A healthy meal before you go out, and snacks between drinks, can help slow down the absorption of alcohol, helping you stay in control.
- Make space. Sipping a soft drink or water between alcoholic drinks slows down the rate of your drinking and means you’ll drink less over the course of the night
For young people, visit The Site for regularly updated guides that take a comprehensive look at alcohol, drugs and much more. www.thesite.org
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0800 917 82820800 917 8282.
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1.) NHS Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2013. Table 4.3 p.59. Available at:http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/alcohol13
2.) NHS Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2013. Table 4.14. p.74. Available at:http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/alcohol13
3.) North West Public Health Authority, 2010, Local Alcohol Profiles. Available at:http://www.nwph.net/nwpho/publications/alcoholattributablefractions.pdf
Page updated: March 2014
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