What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can occur when a person drinks large quantities of alcohol, including beer, wine, and liquor, in a relatively short time. As the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream increases, the liver can’t break down the alcohol and remove its toxins from the blood quickly enough.

The excess alcohol acts as a depressant and causes parts of the brain that control vital body functions–including breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature–to shut down. The blood alcohol content (BAC) can continue to rise 40 minutes after the last drink, as alcohol in the stomach and intestines continues to enter the bloodstream.

Who is at the greatest risk for alcohol poisoning?

Studies have shown that alcohol poisoning is most common in middle-aged adults and men. Among those who die from alcohol poisoning, 76% are 35-64, and 76% are men. Alcohol might negatively affect older people more because body chemistries change with age. Also, older people are more likely to be taking prescription medications that don’t mix well with alcohol. Other possible factors are stress and depression.

However, anyone is vulnerable to alcohol poisoning if they drink too much or binge drink. According to research, when those younger than 20 drink alcohol, they typically have five drinks in one sitting. College students away from home for the first time may drink and take part in drinking games because of peer pressure.

About 90% of binge drinkers who end up with alcohol poisoning are not alcoholics. However, 30% of those who die due to alcohol abuse have some type of alcohol-use disorder. In total, about 2,200 people die from alcohol poisoning every year in the United States.

How many drinks can cause alcohol poisoning?

Binge drinking – defined as five or more drinks for a man and four or more drinks for a woman in a relatively short span – is a common cause of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinkers have an average of eight drinks on each binge.

In the United States, a standard drink is considered:

  • 12 ounces of beer containing 5% alcohol
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor containing 7% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine containing 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, including whisky, vodka, gin, and rum, containing 40% alcohol

However, the line between pleasant drinking and dangerous drinking depends on the person. In addition to gender, important factors include:

  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • The amount of food in the stomach
  • Whether one is an experienced or inexperienced drinker.

What are the symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Strong odor of alcohol
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Lack of coordination and/or an inability to walk
  • Dulled responses
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish skin, especially around the lips or under the fingernails
  • Irregular pulse and/or slow heart rate
  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence (unable to control bowel or bladder)
  • Hypothermia
  • Vomiting and/or choking
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Unconsciousness or semi-consciousness
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths a minute)
  • Seizures

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