The health risks associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol as well as the long-term effects it can have on the human body, are unfortunately still totally underestimated by many people the world over. People, particularly young people, who binge on alcohol, run a high risk of alcohol overdose and even alcohol poisoning.
According to Mayo clinic, Alcohol in the form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is found in alcoholic beverages, mouthwash, cooking extracts, some medications and certain household products. Ethyl alcohol poisoning generally results from drinking too many alcoholic beverages, especially in a short period of time.
Other forms of alcohol – including isopropyl alcohol (found in rubbing alcohol, lotions and some cleaning products) and methanol or ethylene glycol (a common ingredient in antifreeze, paints and solvents) – can cause other types of toxic poisoning that require emergency treatment.
Binge drinking is typically when an individual consumes four to five drinks in succession within a short period of time, and is more common than generally assumed. These are often individuals who drink heavily in spurts – such as once or twice a week. Consuming an entire bottle of wine or a number of beers at a time is effectively binge drinking.
“People often incorrectly assume that alcohol poisoning can only occur after you consume copious amounts of alcohol. Although it mostly occurs when a large amount of alcohol is consumed in a short period of time, in some cases five units of alcohol is all it takes,” says Dr Raksha Sitharam, Neurologist practising at Netcare Waterfall City Hospital in Midrand.
“Alcohol poisoning is extremely harmful to your health and a potentially life-threatening condition as it effectively poisons the body. It can affect people of all ages.”
“Normally, the human liver can only process and break down one unit of alcohol every hour. If one were to consume five or more units of alcohol in a single session lasting approximately one hour you may well be at risk of alcohol poisoning, as you are ingesting alcohol at around five times the rate at which your body can process it,” she cautions.
She adds that most people do not realise how easy it to develop alcohol poisoning. “To drink five units of alcohol in one hour is really not that difficult. For example, if you go for drinks after work with colleagues and have two double brandies as well as a shot of tequila you would have ingested five units of alcohol,” says Dr Sitharam.
What to look out for
“The onset of symptoms relating to alcohol poisoning can be very sudden and a person with alcohol poisoning will be in no state to seek help for themselves or to explain what they are feeling,” notes Dr Rika van Aswegen, an Emergency Practitioner at Netcare Waterfall City Hospital.
“It is important to know what to look out for in the event that a person may be suffering from alcohol poisoning. First and foremost, they should get medical help as soon as possible,” Dr Van Aswegen adds.
Dr Van Aswegen highlights the following signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning:
- Confusion, slurred speech and unresponsiveness
- Loss of coordination or consciousness
- Irregular or slow breathing
- Hypothermia (extremely low body temperature)
- Blue or pale skin
She also lists what not to do if you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning:
- Never leave the person alone to ‘sleep it off’. Stay with them and try to keep them awake.
- Do not encourage them to vomit as their gag reflex might be impaired, which could result in choking.
- Do not offer the person coffee, as it will further dehydrate the body, potentially resulting in harm.
- Do not encourage the person to move around as their balance and coordination may be compromised, which could result in falls and possibly injury.
“Alcohol induced seizures can cause physical injuries due to complications from a seizure or its after-effects. These could include head trauma, broken bones, choking during or after a seizure or drowning in the event that a seizure occurs in or near water. It can furthermore pose tremendous danger if a seizure occurs while driving,” says Dr Sitharam. “The risk of experiencing seizures in future may also increase due to physical head injuries.”
“Other long term effects, however, may be much more subtle. Alcohol poisoning can cause permanent brain damage due to lack of oxygen as a result of seizures or a loss of consciousness, while liver cirrhosis and other organ damage may also occur,” she adds. “Recurrent or chronic binge drinking can lead to neurological complications such as cognitive impairment, ataxia (lack of muscle coordination that may effect speech and movement), neuropathies (nerve damage) and myopathies (muscle tissue disease),” says Dr Sitharam. “Other chronic alcohol use complications include liver disease other than cirrhosis, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, pancreatitis and gastritis,” she adds.
Treatment and recovery
“Treatment of alcohol poisoning varies considerably depending on the specific circumstances and symptoms of each individual patient. It may involve the monitoring of vital signs, the administration of supplemental oxygen and intravenous fluids such as glucose and vitamins,” says Dr Van Aswegen. “In extreme cases the patient might need to be ventilated and put on life support,” she adds.
She adds that recovery time is dependent on the patient’s condition, overall health, his or her age and the nature of any injuries sustained while under the influence of alcohol.
“The best way to avoid harm is to limit your alcohol intake and to be mindful of the amount of alcohol consumed at all times,” advises Dr Sitharam. “Furthermore, be aware and take action if you or a friend shows symptoms of alcohol poisoning. It is always advisable to seek medical assistance as soon as possible,” she concludes.