Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that involves heavy or frequent alcohol use even when it causes problems, emotional distress, or physical harm. A combination of medications, behavioural therapy and support can help if you or a loved one needs recovery.
Alcohol is one of the most commonly used mind-altering substances in Canada – and it can also be an extremely dangerous drug. Excessive alcohol use can result in complications ranging from mild intoxication to fatal alcohol poisoning.
More than 2,200 people die from alcohol poisoning each year, which is an average of six people per day. Most fatalities are men, and three out of four of them are between the ages of 35 and 65.
Defining Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning – also known as alcohol overdose – occurs when there is too much alcohol in your blood, resulting in parts of your brain starting to shut down. Because alcohol is a depressant, it suppresses the brain and nervous system, slowing your breathing, your heart rate, and other important tasks that your body performs.
Your liver usually does a good job of keeping alcohol’s toxins from getting into your bloodstream. But if you drink a lot in a short time, your liver may not be able to keep up.
Alcohol poisoning can lead to brain damage or death. If you’re with someone who might have drunk too much, call 911 right away. By familiarising yourself with the signs of alcohol poisoning, particularly if there is someone in your life who drinks heavily, you could help prevent a tragedy.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Some symptoms start mild and grow worse. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Smelling like alcohol
- Confusion or slurred speech
- Poor coordination or stumbling
- Damp or clammy skin
Some symptoms of alcohol poisoning are more serious. These include:
- Severe confusion
- Loss of consciousness
- Trouble staying awake
- Throwing up
- Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
- Long pauses between breaths (ten seconds or more)
- Very slow heartbeat
- Low body temperature
- Bluish or pale skin
- Slow responses (such as gag reflex)
What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning results from alcohol levels in your blood being too high for your liver to cope with. The higher your blood alcohol content (BAC), the higher your risk of alcohol poisoning and the more severe the effects will be.
It doesn’t take a lot of alcohol in the blood to cause problems:
- Up to 0.05%: This level is considered a mild impairment. Symptoms typically include some difficulty speaking and remembering things. The person may seem clumsy, and they may begin to feel a little sleepy.
- Between 0.06 and 0.15%: The effects of mild intoxication get worse. A significant impact on driving skills begins to show up.
- Between 0.16 and 0.30%: Judgement and decision-making skills become significantly impaired. The person may suffer from blackouts. Vomiting is common.
- Between 0.31 and 0.45%: The situation is now life-threatening. At this point, the person has a significant risk of dying from the depressant effect that causes vital life functions to slow too much.
It is essential that someone present call 911 immediately. The individual may also need addiction treatment. This process includes safe medical detox.
How to Measure BAC
There are two main ways to check someone’s blood-alcohol content:
- Breathalyser: As you drink, the alcohol goes through your bloodstream to your lungs. There, it evaporates into the lungs, and you breathe it out. As you exhale, the breathalyser can estimate your BAC by how much alcohol it detects in your breath.
- Blood test: A lab technician draws a small amount of blood with a needle and analyzes the sample to determine BAC. The blood test is most accurate within six to twelve hours after the last drink you consume.
What to do if Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning
You can do several things to help someone who shows signs of alcohol poisoning:
- Seek help: Call 911 or take the person to the nearest emergency room.
- Keep them awake: Stay with the person and keep them awake.
- Provide water: Have them sip water to keep them hydrated if they are not unconscious.
- Keep them warm: Cover them with a warm blanket. Alcohol poisoning can cause hypothermia.
- Explain your actions: Talk to them and let them know why you are doing things. Otherwise, they may become belligerent.
- Prevent choking: If they are unconscious, turn them on their side. If the person vomits, they may choke on it.
- DO NOT LEAVE THE PERSON UNATTENDED.
When paramedics arrive, be ready to tell them what you can about the person. You might need to describe how much the person drank or what they’ve been doing since you called for help.
Treating Alcohol Poisoning
If someone has alcohol poisoning, they need lifesaving treatment right away. In a medical setting, healthcare professionals may use several treatment methods.
- IV fluids: Providers give intravenous (IV) fluids to treat dehydration. Fluids can also increase blood sugar levels.
- Oxygen: Providers can give oxygen using a nasal cannula (a flexible tube clipped to the nose). They may put a small tube into the windpipe if a person has trouble breathing.
- Stomach pumping: Using a tube, healthcare providers can clear the stomach of toxins.
- Blood filtration: If the kidneys aren’t able to do the job, providers may start dialysis to filter alcohol from the blood.
Preventing Alcohol Poisoning
To prevent alcohol poisoning, limit your alcohol consumption. You need to know when enough is enough. If you or a friend are drinking, pay attention to how much you consume and how quickly. If a friend appears to be drinking too much too fast, try to intervene and limit how much more they have. Moderation is always important. Drink no more than one alcoholic beverage an hour.
Additionally, you can prevent alcohol poisoning by:
- Avoiding drinking games: Games can put pressure on participants to binge drink.
- Stay hydrated: Drink water after every alcoholic beverage.
- Don’t mix alcohol and medicine: Never drink alcohol while taking prescription medications.
- Eat first: Don’t drink on an empty stomach.
- Stay alert: Avoid a drink if you don’t know its contents or if it’s mixed with energy drinks.
Frequent heavy drinkers are at significant risk of alcohol poisoning. Seeking help can literally be lifesaving. There are numerous options for addressing concerns related to alcohol addiction. Everyone will have their own set of goals when engaging in recovery. Every person’s experience is different, and what has been effective for some people may not be effective for others. Therefore, goals are set for treatment in consultation with a team of healthcare providers.
One part of treatment that is discussed with the team and is personalised is what to focus on in therapy. Healthcare providers will work towards addressing the underlying emotional concerns that may be contributing to the addiction and find alternative coping strategies that do not involve substance use.
Mental illness and addictions are both rooted in a complex and variable combination of biology, psychology, and life experience – particularly exposure to stress and trauma – and each person’s treatment needs and goals are different.
There are several choices for addiction treatment depending on what a person’s needs may be. The severity of the alcoholism, and its effects on the person’s life, directly impact the treatment plan.
Group counselling takes place in a variety of settings, including rehab centres. Meetings with individuals who have similar concerns to discuss skills and strategies for managing addiction issues can be an effective tool for treating addiction.
This part of treatment is tailored to the participant’s needs. The therapist uses the best strategies for that individual, that will help them retrain the destructive behaviour. The therapy goals and focus depend on the profile of the person and the severity of the addiction.
This is a process where a person has a worker assigned to them for support. It can include developing a treatment plan, linking the person to services, and monitoring their progress.
Inpatient or Residential Treatment
Inpatient rehab is intensive addiction treatment, where a person stays in a facility 24/7 for the duration of the program. These programs can last from 30 days to several months. Usually, inpatient programs will offer group counselling, individual therapy, case management support, and family counselling, if requested by the team. These facilities can be either public or privately funded. Wait times for residential treatment vary, but they are significantly shorter in private rehab.
This typically offers similar programming as residential treatment, but clients go home at the end of the day instead of staying overnight within the facility. As with inpatient rehab, aftercare is part of recovery so that there is less chance of relapsing. Individualised plans are created for each person.
Many individuals start with inpatient rehab and move to outpatient rehab as they need less supervision. Typically, addiction treatment options will provide assessment, ongoing counselling, development of skills to manage alcohol use disorder related issues, and development of treatment goals.
For some addictions, medications such as Methadone may assist in the treatment process. These medications mimic the effects of alcohol on the brain, so they can effectively manage some withdrawal symptoms. For more information about medical interventions, speak with your health care practitioner.
12 step model support/recovery groups
This is a peer-based treatment program for people suffering from alcohol use disorder/addiction. Participants follow a set of steps with the goal of abstaining from their substance of choice. Groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous. It is strongly recommended that people with alcohol addictions consult with a medical practitioner for help with quitting drinking in addition to attending the support group.
Medical Detox (Residential Withdrawal Management)
Medical detox happens in a facility where the person is monitored around the clock to ensure that they safely withdraw from alcohol. These facilities all operate with medical interventions and discharge planning is provided. Medications may be used to make detox safer and more comfortable.
If you believe that you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol poisoning, the first step is to seek medical intervention immediately. A physician can diagnose and treat alcohol poisoning. If you are a frequent heavy drinker, the doctor will recommend addiction treatment as well.
When it is time to stop drinking, call Thousand Islands Rehab Centre. Addiction treatment is the only safe way to tackle your substance use, and research has proven that it is highly effective. In our facility, you will learn new strategies that you can use to get sober and stay that way. There are countless recovery choices from which to choose. We will work with you to select the treatment methods that are best for your needs.