On college campuses, in fraternities and sororities, in backyards, in basements and in bars, people are drinking to excess and getting alcohol poisoning, a life-threatening (and entirely preventable) emergency. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 2,200 deaths each year in the United States attributed to this condition.
Alcohol poisoning symptoms are the result of drinking copious amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking games and hazing incidents where alcohol is used as a punishment or a test of fortitude are all too familiar today and, sadly, when the first signs appear that someone has consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol, people don’t know to call 911.
Just recently, police issued arrest warrants for 10 members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity at Louisiana State University after the unnecessary death Maxwell Gruver, a fraternity pledge. The cause of death was “acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration.” In essence, he vomited and then aspirated it into his lungs causing him to suffocate and die. The criminal charges for the Phi Delta Theta fraternity members include hazing and, for one member, negligent homicide.
Phi Delta Theta was suspended by Louisiana State University following Mr. Gruver’s death, and the national organization for the fraternity has opened an investigation. However, it is just too little, too late for this young man who showed signs of extreme intoxication. He passed out on a couch, and no one checked on him for more than six hours. When he couldn’t be awakened, he was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead. (1)
This story isn’t unique. Just before I published this article, Florida State University announced that all fraternities and sororities are indefinitely suspended following an alcohol-related death of a freshman pledge of Pi Kappa Phi. This death follows on the heels of another alcohol-related death at a fraternity this year at Penn State University, where Tim Piazza was pledging Beta Theta Pi. Members of the fraternity left Piazza for 12 hours after he fell while extremely intoxicated; they were later charged with involuntary manslaughter and hazing. (2, 3)
These two young men may have been saved if they’d received proper emergency medical care at the first signs of extreme intoxication and alcohol overdose, instead of just letting them “sleep it off.” There are three frightening myths surrounding how to treat someone who is intoxicated that can make the condition worse and lead to death.
Three Myths of Alcohol Poisoning
1. You can sleep it off
2. A cold shower will wake you up
3. Caffeine will make you more alert
The problem with sleeping is that alcohol suppresses natural reflexes, including the gag reflex. So if someone passes out and then vomits, they can choke to death because their gag reflex doesn’t work. A cold shower sounds harmless enough, but the reality is that alcohol lowers the core temperature of the body, and a cold shower on top of that can cause hypothermia. Caffeine just masks the outward symptoms of alcohol; it doesn’t reduce the level of alcohol in the body.
This leads to another myth — combining alcohol and high-caffeine drinks keeps you from getting drunk. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, studies show that the now common practice of mixing energy drinks with alcohol leads to greater consumption as the depressant effects of alcohol are diminished. Those that combine caffeine and alcohol are four times more likely to binge drink at a high intensity, particularly in the 15- to 23-years-old age group. (4, 5, 6)
Rapid binge drinking, dares, hazing and drinking games are dangerous. Irreversible brain damage, coma and death are possible. And the statistics are staggering. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 adults admits to binge drinking four times a month, consuming eight or more drinks per binge. If you witness any of the common signs of an alcohol overdose like stupor, seizures, irregular breathing or others, call 911 immediately. Time is of the essence. (7, 9)
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is essentially an alcohol overdose caused by consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Too much alcohol overwhelms the body’s natural ability to break it down and clear it from the system, leading to a rapid increase in the blood alcohol count (BAC). Essentially, the drinker has consumed a toxic amount of alcohol.
As the BAC rises, so does the alcohol’s effects. Poor judgment, a decrease in coordination, personality changes and vomiting are signs of a high BAC that is significantly impairing brain function. When there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream certain life-support functions including breathing, the gag reflex, temperature control and heart rate can begin to shut down. If the drinker passes out, the risk is not over as the BAC continues to rise and the life-support functions begin to shut down. This can result in death. (10)
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States and is a risk factor for many health and social problems. Excessive alcohol consumption includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, any alcohol consumption by pregnant women, and any alcohol consumption for those 21 years of age and younger. While 88,000 deaths per year between 2001 to 2005 were attributed to excessive alcohol consumption, binge drinking accounted for more than half of those deaths. In addition to alcohol poisoning, other alcohol-related causes of death include falls, vehicle accidents, and violence. (11, 12)
Sadly, many people don’t know and cannot recognize alcohol poisoning symptoms or signs of extreme intoxication. While many of them may appear mild, many of the deaths that occur happen when someone is left alone after they’ve passed out or lost consciousness. Remember, the blood alcohol count continues to rise for a couple of hours, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed. Never leave a person alone who has passed out after drinking; try to keep them awake. Don’t let them lie on their backs, and if any of the following symptoms appear, call 911 immediately. (13)
- Repeated vomiting
- Uncontrollable vomiting
- Loss of coordination and balance
- Cold, clammy hands or the chills
- Skin becomes bluish
- Unconsciousness and can’t be awakened
- Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
- Irregular — a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths
While consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time is the undeniable cause of alcohol poisoning, there some factors that do affect the way that the human body handles alcohol.
- Overall health
- Size and weight
- Amount and type of food consumed before drinking
- If drinking alcohol is accompanied by any illegal drugs, prescription drugs or caffeine
- Personal tolerance level
- Consuming more than four drinks for women
- Consuming more than five drinks for men
Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning
- Choking on vomit
- Aspirating of vomit leading to asphyxiation
- Seizures resulting in brain damage or death
- Stopped breathing
- Severe dehydration
- Irregular heartbeats
- Irreversible brain damage
- Death (10)
Dangers of Binge Drinking
- Vehicle accidents
- Vulnerable to sexual assault and rape
- Partner violence
- Unprotected sex, possibly resulting in sexually transmitted diseases and/or unintended pregnancy (10)
What to Do if you Suspect Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is a serious and potentially life-threatening emergency and time is of the essence. Call 911 immediately if any of the signs or symptoms above are present. Also, follow these guidelines: (14)
- Stay with the person, even if they appear to be sleeping
- Try to keep them conscious
- Remain calm and firm
- Wrap in blankets or jackets to keep them warm
- Do the Bacchus Maneuver, a position that keeps them from choking on their vomit
- If they are sitting upright, give them water or coconut water
- If they vomit, help them by keeping them sitting up
- Be prepared to perform CPR
- If you cannot awaken them, call 911 immediately
- Be prepared to provide information on the type and quantity of alcohol consumed and when
- Leave the person alone to sleep it off
- Give them caffeine
- Give them food or medication, even over-the-counter painkillers
- Have them walk
- Let them take a cold shower
- Hesitate to call 911; their life may depend on immediate emergency medical attention
How Much Alcohol is in Your Drink
The amount of alcohol a drink contains varies widely, depending on the type of drink and the serving size. The ALC of beers range from 4.2 percent to 8 percent for 12 ounces, while wines range from 10 percent to 14 percent per 5-ounce serving. But the alcohol content is much higher in spirits and mixed drinks, with an ALC that is commonly 40 percent to 50 percent, or higher, per drink. The darker the color of the alcohol in each category, the greater the alcohol content.
- National Brand Beer: 5 to 6 percent
- Micro-Brew Beers, Stouts, Malt Beverages: Up to 15 percent
- White Wine: 10 to 15 percent ALC
- Red Wine: 12 to 16 percent ALC
- Fortified Wine (sherry, port, Madeira): 16 to 24 percent ALC
- Sake: 20 percent ALC
- Vodka: 40 to 95 percent ALC
- Gin: 36 to 50 percent ALC
- Rum: 36 to 50 percent ALC
- Whiskey: 36 to 50 percent ALC
- Tequila: 50 to 51 percent ALC
- Liqueurs (schnapps, triple sec, amaretto): 15 to 20 percent ALC
Mixed drinks that include one or more types of alcohol have the highest alcohol content. The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides a free cocktail calculator to help determine the amount of alcohol in each drink. Here are some popular mixed drinks and their alcohol content:
- Vodka Martini: 30 to 40 percent or greater
- Tom Collins: 8 percent
- Mojito: 13 to 16 percent or greater
- Margarita: 30 to 40 percent or greater
- Pina Colada: 13 to 15 percent
- Screwdriver: 11 to 14 percent or greater
- Vodka Tonic: 13 percent or greater
- Long Island Ice Tea: 25 percent or greater
10 Ways to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning & Protect Your Liver
1. Drink in moderation. The fail-proof way to avoid alcohol poisoning is to limit alcohol consumption. If you are going to drink multiple drinks, stop when you first start to feel buzzed.
2. Don’t participate in drinking games/hazing. Sip drinks slowly, and keep track of your alcohol consumption. Know your limits. Stand strong in the face of peer pressure; leave the event if you are uncomfortable.
3. Eat a healthy meal. Before consuming alcohol, eat a healthy, well-rounded meal. Having some food in your stomach may help to slow alcohol absorption, but it will not prevent alcohol overdose. While at a party or event, try to snack to keep food in your system.
4. Alternate alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic drinks. While at a party, for every cocktail, glass of wine or beer you have, have a non-alcoholic (and non-caffeinated) drink. The best choices are water or coconut water to help you stay hydrated.
5. N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC): To lessen the toxic effects that alcohol has on the body, take 200 milligrams of N-acetyl cysteine before drinking. This may help reduce hangover symptoms the following day.
6. B Vitamins. Alcohol depletes many nutrients in the body, with the B vitamins being among the most targeted. These vitamins are essential and they help to eliminate alcohol in the system. Prior to drinking, take a high-quality vitamin B complex supplement. Also, snack on healthy foods like yogurt, pistachios, avocados and sunflower seeds.
7. Milk Thistle. Before you drink, and in the days following high alcohol consumption, take 150 milligrams of milk thistle twice a day. This is a relatively high dose, and should only be done when you need a natural liver “detox.” For general liver support, take 50 to 150 milligrams daily.
This powerful herb has been used for thousands of years to support liver detoxification and general health. In fact, it is recommended as a therapeutic treatment for certain diseases of the liver including jaundice, hepatitis, fatty liver syndrome and for damage due to alcohol. (15)
Milk thistle’s high concentration of silymarin may help to protect against certain types of cancer. As excessive alcohol consumption increases your risk of developing certain cancers, taking a high-quality milk thistle supplement is essential for heavy drinkers. (16)
8. Probiotics. Researchers from Germany have identified that consuming large amounts of alcohol disrupts the absorption of nutrients, cause digestive upset and bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. (17)
Eating probiotic-rich foods like kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, apple cider vinegar and raw cheese — before and after — consuming alcohol may help to stave off the digestive upset and keep the gut’s bacterial balance in check. Also, a high-quality probiotic supplement that contains 50 billion CFU or higher is wise if you consume three or more drinks a week.
9. Magnesium. Nearly 80 percent of the population is deficient in this essential mineral, and for those who drink, supplementation is an absolute necessity. Magnesium deficiency can lead to liver damage, and studies show that like the B vitamins, many patients with liver disease are deficient in this essential nutrient. (18)
Taking a high-quality magnesium supplement (420 milligrams for men and 320 milligrams for women) in addition to including magnesium-rich foods can help to protect your liver, reduce your risk of stroke and heart attacks, lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes and much more. (19, 20)
10. Drink Coconut Water. While drinking, and after drinking, it is essential that you rehydrate and replenish electrolytes, particularly if you have vomited. An electrolyte imbalance can cause confusion, irritability, dizziness, muscle spasms, pain and digestive distress.
Don’t reach for a sports drink that is loaded with chemicals and sugar when coconut water is so much healthier. Coconut water is loaded with potassium and also contains small amounts of sodium, magnesium and calcium — essential when you need to rebalance after drinking. (21)
Alcohol Poisoning Key Points
- Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening emergency. If you suspect it, call 911 immediately.
- Do not leave a person alone when alcohol poisoning symptoms are present; if they have passed out after drinking, perform the Bacchus Maneuver to prevent choking.
- Too much alcohol in the body suppresses life-support functions including gag reflex, temperature, heart rate and breathing.
- Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
- The amount of alcohol in a drink varies widely; know the amount of alcohol you are consuming to prevent excessive intoxication.
- Consuming alcohol and caffeine together increases the danger.
- You can’t sleep off alcohol poisoning or take a walk or cold shower to recover.
10 Ways to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning and Protect Your Liver
- Drink in moderation.
- Don’t participate in drinking games/hazing.
- Eat a healthy meal.
- Alternate alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Take 200 milligrams of N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) before drinking.
- Take a high-quality B complex supplement daily
- Take 150 milligrams of milk thistle twice a day to detox the liver.
- Eat probiotic-rich foods.
- Take magnesium daily.
- Drink coconut water to balance electrolytes.