All About Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is easier to get than most people think and it can be deadly. Here is how people get alcohol poisoning and the symptoms to look for.

Alcohol poisoning is easier to get than most people think and it can be deadly.

Some have the wrong idea that alcohol poisoning can only happen if you drink home made alcohol or something like moonshine. But alcohol poisoning is not that hard to get and it happens too frequently.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain and Body

Alcohol is ethanol and before alcohol can be metabolized by the body, it first affects the brain. Alcohol is actually a toxin to brain cells.

In the brain, alcohol starts to depress brain functions. With a couple of drinks, people will start to relax, laugh, talk more and lose inhibitions. This can be fine in social settings, but when drinking alcohol continues, the brain starts to shut down.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, interferes with nerves cells communicating with each other. And yes, alcohol does kill brain cells. As the alcohol disturbs the nerve pathways, a person drinking will start to become sluggish. Remember, the brain controls the human body, nerves, thinking, muscles, digestion, respiratory and breathing and organ functions. The brain accomplishes this by communicating electrical and chemical signals between cells. Alcohol affects this communication between cells.

The brain also processes information from your five senses. The brain, like a super-computer processes sight, sound, touch and makes judgments and muscle reactions based on the information the brain receives. Alcohol affects these processes and then renders sluggish and or wrong judgments.

As the blood alcohol content increases (BAC), the less processing the brain can do. In other words, alcohol blunts the drinker’s senses to the point where the brain doesn’t even realize you have hurt yourself.

Areas of the brain affecting by drinking alcohol include:

The medulla or brain stem controls the body’s automatic functions like breathing, heart rate and temperature. At first alcohol can cause sleepiness, when alcohol consumption continues, this can a person to become unconscious and affect the other automatic functions. This is where too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning and become dangerous and even fatal.

The cerebellum and cerebral cortex coordinates the movement of muscles and movements. When they become affected by alcohol, balance and coordination are compromised.

The limbic system controls your emotions and memory. Alcohol not only causes loss of short term memory and blackouts, it can also cause a person to become more emotional. More emotional can be anger, sadness, and affection and overly depressed.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is basically drinking too much alcohol too fast, faster than the body can metabolize it, which causes a toxic reaction to the brain and the body. The brain functions start to slow down and can stop.

Drinking too much alcohol too fast until unconsciousness occurs and certain body functions stop can lead to death.

How Does Someone Get Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks too much alcohol too fast, which is occurring more often with the increase in binge drinking. Colleges have noticed an increase in students going to the emergency room with alcohol poisoning.

One drink is defined as one 12 ounce beer (355 ml), 5 ounces of wine (148 ml) or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof hard liquor (44 ml). Keep in mind that mixed drinks can often contain more than 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, and there are liquors that are more than 80 proof.

Alcohol is absorbed quickly and if drinking on an empty stomach, 20 percent of the alcohol can reach your brain in one minute. It takes about one hour for the liver to metabolize one alcoholic drink. When someone drinks more than one drink per hour, like binge drinking, the body cannot absorb and metabolize all of this alcohol.

This rate at which the liver can handle the alcohol is dependant on the person, the size, weight and gender of the person. That is why one drink is usually defined as less for women than for men. Men shouldn’t let this fool them, binge drinking more than one drink per hour can still lead to alcohol poisoning and death. And a teenager or young adult can have less tolerance for alcohol, which leads to alcohol poisoning sooner.

Alcohol also causes the stomach to become irritated, and if too much alcohol is consumed too quickly, that person will probably throw up. That is certainly one warning sign of too much alcohol. Too many times after throwing up, a person might then actually feel better and continue to drink, leading to alcohol poisoning.

How Alcohol Poisoning Can be Fatal

As I wrote above, alcohol affects the brain and the brain controls the body. The gag reflex keeps a person from choking, when alcohol decreases the brains functions and someone does throw up, their gag reflex might not work properly and the person can actually choke to death on their vomit if they are passed out.

Another danger of alcohol poisoning is the risk of someone actually inhaling their own vomit into the lungs which can lead to a dangerous or even fatal interruption of breathing causing asphyxiation.

Symptoms and Warning Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

If any of these signs appear in a person who has been drinking alcohol, call 911 for paramedics. If you are underage and worried that you are also breaking the law, realize that you could be saving someone’s life by calling for help.

Look for any of these symptoms; all of these symptoms do not have to be present for that person to have alcohol poisoning.

  • The person has passed out and cannot be woken. Someone who has passed out and cannot be woken is at risk of dying.
  • Slow breathing, fewer than 8 breaths per minute
  • Erratic breathing, 10 seconds or more between breaths
  • Difficulty breathing after throwing up
  • Cold, clammy, pale or bluish skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Confusion, stupor or coma

How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning

Do not binge drink. Only have one drink per hour. Eat before you go out drinking and in between drinks have something to eat. If at a party and you feel you need to have a drink in your hand, have a glass of club soda between alcoholic drinks. Drinking water between alcoholic drinks can reduce the dehydration that alcohol causes and help your body metabolize the alcohol.

For more about binge drinking, read the article The Dangers of Binge Drinking

© November 2, 2010 Sam Montana


Mayo Clinic Alcohol and Ethanol


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