What You and Your College Buddies Need to Know to Protect Yourselves from Alcohol Poisoning

Now that autumn is in full swing, so are college parties, game nights, and initiation ceremonies. Along with these activities comes the likelihood of drinking, and unfortunately, a rise in alcohol poisonings. Alcohol overdose is a serious condition that requires urgent medical care. Education is the key to prevention as well as for caring for someone who is suffering from alcohol poisoning. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, also called ethanol poisoning, is an overdose of alcohol caused by drinking too much in a short period of time. Ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient of alcohol, is a depressant that primarily affects the tissues of the brain and nervous system. It especially affects the nerves that control breathing and circulation. If your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) remains too high for an extended period of time, your lungs and heart can slow to the point of stopping, and without immediate medical intervention, the person will die. Alcohol also suppresses the gag reflex, and a person could vomit and choke to death on their own vomit.

Alcohol is detoxified by the liver. However, according Drinkaware, the liver can only process (remove from the bloodstream) about one unit of alcohol in an hour. One unit is typically described as one small glass (75 ml) of wine, 25 ml (a typical shot glass) of whisky, or 250 ml (a regular draft glass) of beer. If a person consumes more than one unit in an hour, the excess alcohol will accumulate in the bloodstream, where it travels throughout the body and produces the symptoms associated with intoxication, or in extreme cases, alcohol poisoning.

According to the CDC, alcohol poisoning kills an average of 6 people a day in the U.S. And a report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 60 percent of college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol during the previous month, and almost 2 out of 3 of them participated in binge drinking during that time period.

Do You Know the Signs of Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol causes people to lose their coordination, causes dizziness and slurred speech, and reduces inhibitions. But do you know when typical intoxication turns into alcohol toxicity and when to seek medical help? Common symptoms of alcohol use include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling when trying to walk
  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting

In these situations, get the individual to a safe place, keep him or her calm but don't let them fall asleep, give the person something sweet if they are not vomiting, and if they are vomiting, keep them on their side so they don't choke. Only time can cure a person who has drank too much. Coffee and cold showers will not help.

Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Hypothermia (cold to the touch)
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Hallucinations
  • Incontinence
  • Seizures

When you see these symptoms in an individual, you need to get him or her to an emergency room or urgent care center such as Premier Urgent Care Centers of California, Inc. immediately, as they may be at risk of dying. Keep the person warm, calm, and awake during transport to the emergency facility.

What Can You Do to Help Prevent Alcohol Poisoning?

College students often succumb to peer pressure, and one common consequence is binge drinking. They see drinking as an integral part of their college experience. As a peer, you can educate yourself about alcohol abuse and talk to your friends when you witness dangerous drinking behaviors. If you suspect an individual has an alcohol problem, it may be time to get their parents involved or recommend they get counseling. Most colleges and universities have programs for drug and alcohol abuse. Other ways you can help include:

  • Always using a buddy system so that a drinking friend is not left alone.
  • Never letting a person drive after drinking.
  • Watching the person, and when he or she starts exhibiting signs of too much alcohol, try to get them cut off, either by the bartender or a party host.
  • Avoiding drinking games. Encourage eating to slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, many students wait too long to get medical help for a friend and then blame themselves for the tragic consequences of alcohol poisoning. When in doubt about whether to seek medical attention for someone, err on the side of caution. This may cause undesirable family, legal, or academic consequences for the person, but the consequences of alcohol poisoning can be far more serious—even deadly.