Acute alcohol poisoning can occur when someone drinks too much alcohol in too short a period of time. The body can only eliminate a certain amount of alcohol at a time – about the amount of alcohol in one 12-ounce can of beer per hour – and drinking more than that causes your blood alcohol concentration level to rise.
The more you drink, the greater your risk for poisoning. Poisoning most often occurs from binge drinking, for instance, drinking five or more beers in rapid succession.
Acute alcohol poisoning can also occur from ingesting household products containing ethyl alcohol (ethanol), or by ingesting isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) or methyl alcohol (methanol). Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, but it is also found in common household items such as mouthwash, perfumes, aftershaves, and medications. Isopropanol is found in lotions, some hand-sanitizer gels, rubbing alcohol, and antifreeze. Methanol is found in antifreeze, windshield washer fluid, solvents, paints, and varnishes.
There are a number of symptoms of poisoning, and not all symptoms have to be present to indicate a problem. If any of these symptoms are noticed, a person should get medical attention right away. This is a serious condition, and it can result in death without treatment.
Symptoms to watch for include confusion, repeated vomiting, pale or bluish skin, low body temperature (hypothermia), slow or irregular breathing (less than 13 breaths per minute or more than 8 seconds without a breath), seizures, and unconsciousness (if someone is asleep and you can’t wake them, they are unconscious).
Someone who has been drinking or has ingested any of the forms of alcohol listed above and displays any of these symptoms should get medical attention right away. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
Treatment primarily involves supportive care. This involves careful monitoring to insure the patient is breathing well. Because alcohol is a stomach irritant, it may cause vomiting, and because it also impairs the gag reflex, an unconscious person is likely to choke on their vomit. They may also aspirate some of the vomit into their lungs, which can be fatal. Oxygen may be given to help the patient breath. Patients are usually given IV fluids as well to prevent or treat dehydration, which may be caused by excessive vomiting.
Supportive care is given while the body rids itself of the alcohol. In the case of methanol ingestion, kidney dialysis may be needed to speed up the body’s elimination of the alcohol in the system. If the patient survives the first 24 hours, the prognosis is considered good.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Doctors recommend no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. One drink consists of one 12-ounce beer, one 10-ounce wine cooler, one 4-ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor. Note that some mixed drinks contain more than one serving of alcohol.
Talk to your teens. Binge drinking, the most likely activity to cause poisoning, increases during the teen years and peaks between ages 18 and 22. However, studies show that teens whose parents talk to them about the dangers of alcohol use are 42% less likely to drink than teens whose parents don’t discuss the issue with them.
Store products containing ethanol, isopropanol, and methanol safely out of reach of children to prevent accidental ingestion. Also consider keeping alcoholic beverages under lock and key.
Feel free to write to use if you have any questions or suggestions about how to prevent alcohol poisoning.