What Happens to Your Body During an Alcohol Overdose?
Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing and the gag reflex (which prevents choking). A fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop these functions.
It is common for someone who drank excessive alcohol to vomit since alcohol is an irritant to the stomach. There is then the danger of choking on vomit, which could cause death by asphyxiation in a person who is not conscious because of intoxication.
You should also know that a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. Even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. It is dangerous to assume the person will be fine by sleeping it off.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing and the gag reflex, which prevents choking. Someone who drinks a fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop breathing. Even if someone survives an alcohol overdose, he or she can suffer irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking (which often happens on a bet or a dare) is especially dangerous because the victim can drink a fatal dose before losing consciousness.
A person’s blood alcohol concentration can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the blood-stream and circulate throughout the body. A person who appears to be sleeping it off may be in real danger.
What Should I Look For?
Critical signs of alcohol poisoning include mental confusion, stupor, coma, or the person cannot be roused; vomiting; seizures; slow (fewer than eight breaths per minute) or irregular (10 seconds or more between breaths) breathing; and hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, and paleness.
What Should I Do?
Know the danger signals. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, don’t wait for all the critical signs to be present. Be aware that a person who has passed out may die. If you suspect an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately for help. Don’t try to guess the level of drunkenness.
If the person is unconscious, semi-conscious, or unresponsive, check for these symptoms of alcohol or drug overdose:
- Cannot be roused and are unresponsive to your voice, shaking, or pinching their skin.
- Skin is cold, clammy, pale, bluish, and/or blotchy.
- Breathing is slow – eight or fewer breaths per minute.
- Experience lapses in breathing – more than 10 seconds between breaths.
- Exhibit mental confusion, stupor, or coma.
- Have seizures, convulsions, or rigid spasms.
- Vomit while asleep or unconscious and do not awaken.
If they are conscious and responsive:
- Stay with them. Check often to make sure they are still conscious and responsive.
- Make certain that they stay on their side, not their back. See The Bacchus Maneuver
- Before you touch them, tell them exactly what you are going to do. Be aware of any signs of aggression. Do not ridicule, judge, threaten, or try to counsel them.
- Remain calm and be firm. Avoid communicating feelings of anxiety or anger.
- Keep them quiet and comfortable. If they are in the sun, move them to the shade. If cold, move them to a warm place and offer a blanket.
- Don’t give them food, drink, or medication of any kind.
- Remember that only time will sober up a drunk person. Walking, showering, or drinking coffee will not help and may actually cause harm.
What Can Happen to Someone With an Alcohol Overdose That Goes Untreated?
- Victim chokes on his or her own vomit.
- Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
- Heart beats irregularly or stops.
- Hypothermia (low body temperature).
- Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures.
- Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.
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.
Source: The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/