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Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol Overdose

Did you know that over 50% of Delawareans drink alcohol at least once a month? This number hasn’t changed in over 10 years. Whether it’s a glass of wine at dinner or a few drinks on the weekend to blow off some steam, one thing is certain: we are very familiar with alcohol. For a majority of the population, this isn’t a problem. But for the 19.3% of men and 9.8% of women who participate in excessive drinking, alcohol overdose can be a serious and life-threatening reality. 

At SUN Behavioral Delaware, we care about our communities and don’t want to see anyone overdose on alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as 15+ drinks per week for men and 8+ drinks per week for women. We know these guidelines aren’t always easy to follow. Let’s talk about alcohol poisoning and how we can prevent it from happening.

What is Alcohol Overdose/Poisoning?

Simply put, alcohol overdose happens when a person drinks too much alcohol at once. It’s a cluster of potentially dangerous symptoms that result from a substance overwhelming the body. Because alcohol impacts the central nervous system, an overdose can impact many vital organs, including the brain. If an overdose goes untreated, it can lead to long-term health problems or even death. 

There’s no doubt about it – alcohol is toxic in large amounts. While the liver does a great job at breaking alcohol down and expelling it from the body, it can only metabolize about one drink per hour. One drink is considered 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of spirits (alcohol, tequila, whiskey, etc.) What isn’t being metabolized by your liver stays in your body until you sweat, breathe, or vomit it out. When too much alcohol is ingested, it can’t be properly metabolized and it begins to poison your body. This results in the shutting down of important organs and functions.

Who’s at Risk for Alcohol Poisoning?

Drinking too much in one sitting, or binge drinking, isn’t the only factor at play in alcohol poisoning. There are other variables to consider when it comes to who is at risk, including:

  1. The quality of your health. If you’re struggling health-wise in other areas, this could make you more susceptible to alcohol poisoning – especially if you’re on any prescription medications.
  2. Your age, size, weight, and sex. Women have less of the enzyme dehydrogenase present in their stomachs than men do, and this enzyme plays a crucial role in breaking down alcohol in the body. Because of this, women tend to have a higher blood alcohol level than men, even if they’re consuming the same number of drinks. Absorption rates also vary between people who are underweight and overweight. Someone who is under 130 pounds will have a higher BAC than someone who weighs 180 pounds – even if they’ve had the same amount of alcohol. The higher the BAC, the higher the risk of overdose.
  3. The percentage of alcohol in your drinks. All drinks are not created equal. One glass of wine doesn’t equal one glass of tequila. The higher the alcohol content, the higher the risk of poisoning.
  4. Whether or not there’s food in your system before you drink. It’s common advice to eat before you partake in a night of drinking, and there’s a reason for that. When there’s food in your stomach, it works to slow the processing of alcohol and keep your BAC down.
  5. Your tolerance level. If someone has been drinking consistently over a prolonged period of time, their body is going to be accustomed to larger amounts of alcohol. Someone who has just started drinking, or who hasn’t had alcohol in a long time, is more susceptible to an overdose.
  6. Whether or not you’re mixing alcohol with other substances (like opioids or stimulants). Stimulants like methamphetamines dull alcohol’s effects, so when someone drinks while they’re taking them, they’re not aware of how intoxicated they are. This can lead to a higher likelihood of overdose. When alcohol is taken alongside other depressants like opioids, the central nervous system has to work harder, which also increases the likelihood of overdose.  
  7. Your mood. This one might seem crazy, but there’s science behind it! If you start drinking while you’re feeling anxious or depressed, those feelings will often become stronger after a drink or two. Emotions like depression, anger, or anxiety can cause a change in the enzymes in the stomach, which can affect how someone processes alcohol. 

The Dangers of Alcohol Overdose

An average of 6 people die each day in the United States from alcohol overdose. Alcohol-related deaths are typically caused by the complications that stem from having a BAC that’s too high. When you’re drinking 8 or more drinks (binge drinking) in one setting, there’s a chance your body will have a difficult time processing the alcohol. Here are some common complications that can be fatal if they aren’t caught in time: 

  • Choking on your own vomit. When there’s too much alcohol in your system, your body works to expel it through vomit. The problem with this is if you’ve had too much, you may feel tired and fall asleep. If you’re unable to wake up when your body needs to expel the alcohol, this results in choking on your own vomit. This can cause asphyxiation. In addition, alcohol prevents the brain from doing its job and controlling automatic functions like gagging. The gag reflex prevents someone from choking, but if that reflex isn’t active, it’s easier to choke or suffer irreversible brain damage from vomiting.
  • Seizures. Seizures themselves aren’t always life-threatening, but you can’t always control when they happen. Having a seizure puts you at risk for accidents and head injuries.
  • Severe dehydration. Dehydration can lead to the malfunction or shutting down of major organs like your kidneys. It can also cause low blood volume shock or a myriad of other life-threatening complications.
  • Brain damage. Long-term brain damage is possible if you’ve been drinking large amounts of alcohol for a long time, and this is more common than brain damage caused by alcohol overdose. However, brain damage from one night of heavy drinking is possible.
  • Heart attack. If your cholesterol is high or if you’re already at risk for a heart attack, heavy binge drinking/alcohol overdose can be dangerous for you. 


What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

Not everyone will experience the same symptoms when it comes to alcohol poisoning. However, some of the most common signs or symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Respiratory distress (8 breaths or less per minute)
  • Blue lips, fingernails, or face
  • Irregular breathing
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Hypothermia (a drop in body temperature)

If one or more of these symptoms is present after an episode of binge drinking, seek immediate emergency help.

When to Seek Medical Attention for an Alcohol Overdose

It can be difficult to gauge whether or not it’s time to seek medical help. Confusion or vomiting, which are common symptoms of alcohol overdose, can look a lot like how the body normally reacts to large amounts of alcohol. This doesn’t necessarily indicate an overdose.   Keep your eye out for accompanying symptoms like irregular breathing or loss of consciousness. 

If the person is unable to be woken up, or if their breathing slows to about 8 breaths per minute, call 911 right away. It’s not safe to assume that someone will just “sleep it off.” Alcohol continues to be released into the bloodstream from the stomach after someone has fallen asleep. 

Make sure that when you call for help, you provide as much information as possible, including how much the individual has had to drink and what symptoms they’re exhibiting. 

Different Types of Help for Alcoholism

If you or someone you love is having a hard time controlling how much alcohol you drink (or how often you drink), it might be time to seek treatment. At SUN Behavioral Delaware, we know that every patient’s healing journey is unique. That’s why we offer a large variety of treatment programs for alcohol use disorder. 

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol detox happens in the first 72 hours after your last drink. It’s the process your body goes through to flush the alcohol out of its system. During this time, your body is working hard to rid itself of any toxins left behind. This is when withdrawal symptoms usually start, peak, and subside.

SUN Behavioral Health’s Alcohol Detox happens during this time. You’ll come in and meet with one of our clinicians to be assessed for your needs and to create some goals for yourself. People who choose detox stay in our facility so we can monitor their condition, treat their withdrawal symptoms, and help them heal safely and efficiently.

Inpatient Treatment 

Inpatient treatment provides patients with a stable and supportive environment. Here, they can focus on their recovery while being surrounded by trained and licensed professionals and others who are going through the same thing. 

During inpatient treatment, patients stay on sight at the rehab facility 24/7. They get to experience a wide variety of activities and programs during their day from individual therapy sessions and group sessions to activities such as yoga or hobbies that help rebuild new habits and focus the mind on healing.

Outpatient and PHP (Partial Hospitalization Program) 

If inpatient treatment doesn’t work for your schedule or your lifestyle, outpatient and PHP can help. This type of care usually does not require patients to stay at the facility while being treated. When visiting the facility, patients spend time in customized sessions over the course of a day. This can be beneficial for full-time employees seeking treatment because it allows patients to continue to maintain a life outside of treatment.

Alcoholism Treatment

If you or someone you know is living with an alcohol use disorder, SUN Behavioral Delaware can help. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about our available treatment options, call us today at 302-604-5600 so we can help you get your life back!

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes alcohol poisoning?

Simply put, alcohol overdose happens when a person drinks too much alcohol at once. It’s a cluster of potentially dangerous symptoms that result from a substance overwhelming the body.

What to do if you suspect someone is overdosing from alcohol?

Call for help immediately. You can either call 911 or poison control at 1-800-222-1222.       

How many days does it take to recover from alcohol overdose?

Everyone’s healing journey varies, but it typically takes 2 weeks for the brain and body to recover from alcohol poisoning or overdose. 

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