Let’s Call Alcohol Poisoning What It Really Is: Drug Overdose
It’s that time of year when tropical locations and the smell of alcohol beckon to teens and college kids looking to shed their inhibitions and bring home wild stories for their friends. Spring is also a great time to get real about the dangers of alcohol abuse.
Last year at this time, reports came in about the heartbreaking deaths of unsuspecting spring breakers, including a 19-year-old University of Florida freshman whose blood alcohol concentration was five times the legal limit. Her friends took her to bed because she was having a hard time walking, and she was found dead in a friend’s condominium the next morning.
Later that year, alcohol poisoning took the lives of 27-year-old Grammy-winning singer Amy Winehouse and Warrant singer Jani Lane.
We all-too-frequently hear about people dying from drug overdose. What a lot of people don’t realize, especially teens and college students, is that the drug responsible for these tragedies is often alcohol, either alone or in combination with prescription medications or other drugs.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone’s blood alcohol level is so high it becomes toxic, usually following a binge drinking episode. Alcohol is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and is filtered out by the liver at a rate of about one drink per hour (one drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of spirits or 5 ounces of wine). When someone drinks large amounts of alcohol in a short time period, their blood alcohol concentration can spike to hazardous levels.
Just as dangerous as an overdose on prescription medications or illicit drugs, alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening and usually requires emergency medical treatment. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
• Severe dehydration
• Hypothermia (dangerously low body temperature)
• Pale, bluish skin
• Irregular heartbeat and low blood pressure
• Shallow breathing
• Unresponsiveness or unconsciousness
Alcohol poisoning affects about 50,000 Americans each year. The people most likely to suffer from alcohol poisoning are college students, chronic alcoholics and those taking medications that interact with alcohol.
In the hospital, alcohol poisoning is treated like other drug overdoses with treatments including oxygen therapy, intravenous fluids or pumping the stomach. In addition to significant health risks, heavy alcohol consumption puts young people at risk of drunk driving, legal problems, getting into fights, and becoming victims of theft, sexual assault or other crimes.
An Unheeded Warning
Despite our best efforts, young people aren’t getting the message about alcohol. The National Institutes of Health reported a 25 percent increase in alcohol overdose among Americans ages 18 to 24 between 1999 and 2008. Overdoses involving alcohol in combination with other drugs increased 76 percent during that time.
A Feb. 2012 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review shows that young people don’t know how to consume alcohol responsibly. Study participants’ “usual” drinks were substantially larger than one unit as defined by government guidelines, and they tended to underestimate the alcohol content of their drinks. Fewer than half gave correct responses when surveyed about their knowledge of safe alcohol consumption.
While passing up alcohol altogether may be a parent’s preference, the reality is that many spring breakers drink – a lot. A University of Wisconsin study showed that 75 percent of college males and 43 percent of females reported being intoxicated on a daily basis during spring break. Most are binge drinking – the average male consumes 18 drinks per day and the average female consumes 10 per day, according to a survey by the Journal of American College Health. Even kids who don’t normally consume alcohol are more likely to drink during spring break.
To prevent last year’s tragedies from resurfacing this spring, we need to spend as much time talking with our children about responsible drinking and the dangers of binge drinking as we do preaching abstinence. Although it is a socially acceptable and commonly used drug, alcohol is still a drug – and it can be just as risky as more feared drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health which has drug rehab and addiction treatment programs in California, Florida, and Tennessee.
Sack, D. (2015). Let’s Call Alcohol Poisoning What It Really Is: Drug Overdose. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/addiction-recovery/2012/03/alcohol-poisoning-drug-overdose/