What do beer and wine have in common with heroin, meth, marijuana, or even cocaine? Although the drinks are legal and the other substances are markedly not, all of them are powerful mind-altering drugs that have the potential to result in an overdose. Yes, you can overdose on alcohol, and there’s a very fine line between being severely drunk and a lethal level of intoxication. Knowing the key signs of an alcohol overdose can make all the difference in how a person will fare this potentially life-threatening event.
What Is An Alcohol Overdose?
An alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning, is a deadly side effect of heavy drinking that requires immediate medical attention when it occurs. When alcohol enters the body more quickly than it can be processed out, the amount of alcohol in the blood becomes too much for the body to handle. This toxic blood affects the brainstem, effectively shutting down the body’s most vital components: the brain and the central nervous system which controls all the autonomic functions that keep us alive such as breathing and a heartbeat.
Key Signs Of Alcohol Overdose
When alcohol consumption is at the point of being toxic and potentially lethal, there are several distinguishing symptoms. Recognizing them is essential to determining the difference between someone being really intoxicated or suffering from something much more serious. In addition to all the symptoms of severe alcohol intoxication, a person undergoing an alcohol overdose will also exhibit the following:
- Damp and clammy skin. Alcohol can seriously interfere with the body’s cardiovascular function and when this happens, your body decreases blood flow from limbs and appendages to vital organs. As a result, body temperature may drop and the lack of blood to the extremities can make a person appear bluish or exceptionally pale.
- Very slow or irregular heartbeat. Alcohol’s depressive effects can slow heart function to dangerous levels. However, a sudden drop in body temperature can also cause the heartbeat to slow. If the heart stops completely and goes into cardiac arrest) a person may lose consciousness. Additionally, the lack of blood flow can cause other organs and other parts of the body to die.
- Slowed or stopped breathing. The respiratory system is another that’s managed by the central nervous system. Severe impairment can result in a person breathing fewer than eight breaths per minute or with pauses of 10 or more seconds between each breath.
- Unresponsive or loss of consciousness. The individual may appear conscious but unresponsive to stimuli. They might also go in and out of consciousness, which may look like they’re constantly falling asleep and struggling to stay awake. This is a result of alcohol’s effects on the brainstem and cerebrum, which are involved in consciousness and alertness.
- Vomiting and choking. When the liver breaks down alcohol, it results in a byproduct called acetaldehyde. This compound is toxic and irritates the stomach lining, resulting in vomiting. This becomes extremely dangerous as alcohol poisoning can affect gag reflex, and increasing the risk of choking.
- Seizures. A rarer and one of the most severe side effects of alcohol overdosing. Alcohol-induced epilepsy has been known to occur in heavy, binge drinkers and those undergoing alcohol withdrawal.
Causes of Alcohol Overdose
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It slows down the reaction time between the neurotransmitters, hormones, and their receptors that are responsible for the vital bodily functions that keep us alive as well as basic cognitive capabilities. The result of this impairment is the standard drunken behaviors (loss of coordination and memory, impaired judgment and reaction time, slurred speech, etc.). The more we drink, the greater the effects of these impairments.
Alcohol overdoses occur when the intoxication level is severe, typically when blood alcohol concentration levels exceed 0.25 (that’s more than three times higher than the legal limit to drive intoxicated!). However, as there are a number of factors that can affect how much alcohol our bodies can tolerate such as age, metabolism, muscle content, and gender, there’s no set BAC level and can vary by the individual.
If you think your drinking habits may be abnormal and not within healthy limits, learn more about the signs of alcohol dependence and addiction and how to determine if you have a drinking problem. August is Overdose Awareness Month and it’s a troubling issue that’s increasing each year. Don’t let yourself become a statistic, get control of your drinking today.