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Alcohol Poisoning

When Drunk Becomes Dangerous

By

Updated December 21, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Beer Pints

Alcohol poisoning is easier to get than you might think.

(c) Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Drinking too much alcohol might start out sounding like fun, but it can be deadly. Drinking enough to black out is one sign of alcohol poisoning, a potentially lethal intake of alcohol that's surprisingly easy to reach.

There's an old suggestion that one alcoholic drink per hour is safe, but that advice isn't set in stone. Consider: Perhaps I don't mix my drinks the same way you do or you had something to eat tonight but your companion did not. Plus, after the first couple of drinks, that theory gets a bit more fuzzy because alcohol doesn't absorb at exactly the same rate all the time, regardless whether you have an empty stomach or not. Even after you stop drinking, the alcohol level in your blood will often keep rising.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

You're likely to see things on this list that you've either seen in others or experienced yourself when drinking. Just because you're still here doesn't mean these aren't serious symptoms. A drunk person who's confused and complaining of nausea is at risk. It's not good enough to simply drive them home and tuck them into bed. At an absolute minimum, a sober person will need to stay nearby to see if he or she gets worse.

Call 911 immediately for an intoxicated person who has any of the following symptoms:

Alcohol Poisoning Treatment

There are a lot of myths about treating alcohol intoxication, but there isn't a cure. The only way to sober up is with time. Calling 911 or taking the intoxicated person to the hospital is the only safe way to treat alcohol poisoning.

The most important first aid for alcohol poisoning - after calling 911 - is to keep the person safe until help arrives. The most important issue is protecting the person from choking on his or her own vomit.

Recovery Position

While the recovery position is a well-worn treatment for unresponsive patients, it doesn't have a lot of research to back up its use. The idea is simple: Put the unconscious person on his or her side in case there is any vomiting. That way, he or she won't choke to death (known as asphyxiation).

It might not work very well. In the only study of body positioning in comatose poisoning victims I could find, the best position turned out to be face down (prone) rather than on your back or side. In the study, rescuers documented which position they found their unconscious overdose patients. The patients underwent X-rays the next day to see how much gunk they had in their lungs.

Folks who were found on their backs (supine) or on their sides (the usual recovery position) sucked up more stomach contents than the face-down crowd. The only group that did as well were the people awake enough to sit up a little.

If you are going to position the person to allow the airway to drain, you have to go all the way. It's not enough to turn the victim's head to the side. You have to actually roll him or her over so anything that bubbles up from the gut can't just slide to the back of the throat and down into the lungs.

Sources:

Adnet F, Borron SW, Finot MA, Minadeo J, Baud FJ. "Relation of body position at the time of discovery with suspected aspiration pneumonia in poisoned comatose patients." Crit Care Med. 1999 Apr;27(4):745-8.

"Facts About Alcohol Poisoning." Last reviewed 11 Jul 2007. Accessed 17 Dec 2011 via collegedrinkingprevention.gov

Oster-Aaland L, Lewis MA, Neighbors C, Vangsness J, Larimer ME. "Alcohol poisoning among college students turning 21: do they recognize the symptoms and how do they help?" J Stud Alcohol Drugs Suppl. 2009 Jul;(16):122-30.

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