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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol use remains a problem for adolescents and young adults. Alcohol exposure has adverse effects on a young, developing brain. 1 Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to grow and change), alcohol can affect a young brain in ways that are still unknown. Even more troubling, excessive alcohol use can have immediate effects — like alcohol poisoning.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is caused by the consumption of a large amount of alcohol in a short period. Alcohol is toxic to the body and requires timely filtration out of the system. When consumed too quickly, the body cannot process the alcohol fast enough, leading to a buildup in the blood.2
People who binge drink are especially prone to alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is classified as a drinking pattern that results in a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. Typically, a female only needs to drink 4 alcoholic beverages in 2 hours to reach a BAC of 0.08. For males, they need to consume about 5 drinks in 2 hours.3
A standard drink is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as equal to:3
- 5 fluid ounces of wine
- 12 fluid ounces of regular beer
- 1.5 fluid ounce shot of distilled spirits like rum or vodka
- 8-9 fluid ounces of malt liquor
Heavy drinking usually peaks during late adolescence and early adulthood, decreasing at about age 26. Before that decline in alcohol use, however, one in five young adults consume alcohol monthly, and one in 10 report binge drinking. About a quarter of young people in schools consumed alcohol in 30 days, and one in seven reported binge drinking on the same day.4
Alcohol Binges and Young Adults
College-age adults are at a higher risk for alcohol poisoning because of the nature of their environment. The social gatherings that make young adulthood fun, such as parties, sports events, or vacations, are also places where alcohol is present. For many young adults, these events are the ideal settings for binge drinking. Unfortunately, binge drinking can be lethal.
College students are likely to participate in binge drinking, which also places them at a higher risk for alcohol overdose. In a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), roughly 33% of full-time college students reported binging on alcohol in the past month. For young adults not attending college, only 27% reported engaging in binge drinking behavior in the past month.5
The evidence shows high alcohol consumption is prevalent in young adults. For this reason, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication, also known as being “drunk,” and alcohol poisoning.
What are the Symptoms of Being Drunk?
Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows brain and body functions down. The body can filter alcohol out efficiently in small amounts. If more and more alcohol is consumed during a specific time, however, the effects will grow stronger.
Tipsy versus Drunk
As alcohol’s effects begin, the first sign is being “tipsy.” When a person is tipsy, they become talkative and will likely have a shorter attention span. They are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
As an individual consumes more alcohol within the next couple of hours, the body begins to accumulate alcohol in the bloodstream, affecting the brain. Someone who is tipsy can quickly become intoxicated or drunk.
The signs of being drunk include:6
- Increased risk-taking
- Lack of coordination
- Vision problems
- Balance issues
- Slow heart rate
- Slow breathing
The more alcohol someone consumes, the greater these symptoms become. Drinking too much alcohol can cause a drunk individual to have alcohol poisoning.6
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol affects individuals differently, depending on their health condition, weight, age, sex, alcohol tolerance, and the use of other substances. The amount of alcohol needed to push a person into an overdose can vary. Knowing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning is essential because it’s a medical emergency. The symptoms of alcohol poisoning are as follows:7
- In and out of consciousness, or can’t wake up
- Cold, clammy skin
- Mental confusion
- Slow heart rate
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Low body temperature
- Bluish skin color, pale
- Alcohol seizures
- Dulled reflexes (choking due to diminished gag reflex)
Risk Factors for Alcohol Poisoning
The most common risk factors for alcohol overdose are the following:
- Age: Age is a risk factor for alcohol poisoning because young adults are more likely to drink excessively. Teen drinking, though done less often than adult drinking, results in the consumption of higher amounts of alcohol.
- Gender: Men are more likely than women to binge drink, making them more susceptible to an alcohol overdose.
- Weight and Body Size: A person’s height and weight may determine how much alcohol a person can absorb. A person who weighs less than another person might become intoxicated quicker.7
- Drug Use: Alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system and its effects can be impacted by other drugs. Conversely, combined with other depressants like benzodiazepines, alcohol can strengthen the effects and result in an overdose.7
- Health Conditions: Health conditions can influence alcohol tolerance. Diabetes or liver disease, for example, can increase alcohol’s effects on the body.7
Blood Alcohol Levels Explained
Two individuals can consume the same amount of alcohol and their BAC tests can have very different results based on their risk factors. The timing of a test may also affect the results, and a test is only deemed accurate if performed within 6-12 hours of alcohol consumption.8
Standard BAC guidelines are listed below:8
- BAC of 0.0 percent: Sober
- BAC of 0.08 percent: Legally Intoxicated
- BAC of 0.08–0.40 percent: Very Impaired
- BAC of above 0.40 percent: At Risk for Serious Complications (People at this level may be at risk for coma or fatal results.)
Teen Alcohol Use
Young adults and adolescents drink alcohol for several reasons. The teen years are a time of exploration and experimentation, and unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can become part of that process. Teens are also prone to risk-taking behavior, making them more apt to make poor decisions about drugs and alcohol. Advertising, whether through magazine ads, commercials, or movies, can also lead teens and hound adults to believe that drinking is acceptable and even necessary.9
Unfortunately, alcohol poisoning can be more problematic for teenagers. Because they’re underage, they may be hesitant to seek help when a peer is overdosing. In addition, they might be unaware that alcohol can be lethal and minimize signs of poisoning.9
Signs of Teen Drinking
Teen drinking can be hard to detect, but there are signs to look out for:9
- Changes in concentration
- Difficulty remembering things
- Slurred speech
- Problems with coordination
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Poor or blurred vision
- Problems with schoolwork
Alcohol Poisoning Treatment
When someone is suspected to have alcohol poisoning, it’s an emergency event. Before emergency responders arrive on the scene, it is important to:
- Try to keep the individual awake and sitting up to prevent choking.
- If they’re unconscious, turn them over on their side and monitor for choking.
- Offer water if they’re able to drink.
- Provide emergency responders with as much information as possible about what the person consumed, how long they’ve been drinking.
In the hospital, the following possible intervention for alcohol poisoning treatment: 10
- Monitoring of vital signs
- Insertion of a tube to prevent choking, open airways, and provide oxygen
- Intravenous fluids to treat and prevent dehydration
- Administration of nutrients and glucose
- Insertion of a urinary catheter if a patient is unconscious
- Gastric lavage (stomach pump) to remove alcohol in the stomach
How to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning and Teen Drinking
Teaching teens and young adults about the dangers of alcohol can save lives. One way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to have an open dialogue about teen drinking. Caregivers can communicate to teens the dangers of alcohol, including the hazards of binge drinking and alcohol poisoning. Additionally, caregivers can limit a teen’s access to alcohol by locking up alcoholic beverages. The most important thing a caregiver can do, however, is to role model responsible behavior when it comes to alcohol.