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October 2008 Chirurgeon's Message

Alcohol Poisoning

Ahh, the battles are done and now it's time to have dinner with your friends and family and pop open an alcohol drink. Just remember as the night goes on that you are drinking a substance that is a mild poison. If you are unfamiliar with the effects of this wonderful beverage here is a brief overview.

Definition

Alcohol poisoning is a serious - sometimes deadly - result of consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol. When your body absorbs too much alcohol, it can directly impact your central nervous system, slowing your breathing, heart rate and gag reflex. This can lead to choking, coma and even death.

Alcohol poisoning most often occurs as a result of drinking too many alcoholic beverages over a short period of time.

A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical attention and should not be left alone. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call the Chirurgeon or 911.

Treatment of alcohol poisoning consists of providing breathing support and intravenous fluids and vitamins until all of the alcohol is eliminated from the body.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion, stupor
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Unconsciousness ("passing out")
It's not necessary for all of these symptoms to be present before seeking help. A person who has become unconscious, or cannot be roused, is at risk of dying.

Causes

Most often alcohol poisoning is a result of drinking too much ethanol in the form of alcoholic beverages.

The effects of ethanol on your system depend on the concentration of alcohol in your blood (blood alcohol concentration, or BAC). Factors that affect your blood alcohol concentration include how strong the alcohol is, how quickly and how much you drink it, and how empty your stomach is at the time you drink it.

Normally, your body can eliminate the alcohol from a 12-ounce can of beer in about one hour. If your body absorbs more alcohol than it can eliminate, your blood alcohol concentration goes up. As you can imagine, drinking several beers in the space of an hour will increase your BAC much more than if you had one beer during the same time period. Binge drinking - rapidly having five drinks or more in a row, for example - can elevate your BAC to the point of causing alcohol poisoning.

Blood alcohol concentration continues to rise even after you've stopped drinking or have passed out because alcohol in your stomach continues to enter your bloodstream.

When to seek medical advice

If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning, even if they don't have all of the signs and symptoms, seek immediate medical care.

Don't leave an unconscious person alone. While waiting for help, do not try to make the person vomit. A person who has alcohol poisoning has an impaired gag reflex and may choke on his or her own vomit or accidentally inhale (aspirate) vomit into his or her lungs, which could cause lethal lung injury.

Tell the Chirurgeon, if you know, the type and quantity of alcohol the person ingested, and when.

Tests and diagnosis

In addition to checking for visible signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, your doctor will likely order blood tests to check blood alcohol levels and identify other signs of alcohol toxicity, such as low blood sugar. A urine test also may help to confirm a diagnosis of alcohol poisoning.

Complications

Alcohol is a stomach irritant and may cause vomiting. It also impairs your gag reflex. This increases the risk of choking on vomit if you've passed out from excessive drinking. There's also a risk of accidentally inhaling vomit into your lungs, which can lead to a dangerous or fatal interruption of breathing (asphyxiation). Excessive vomiting can also result in severe dehydration.

In addition, alcohol poisoning can affect your respiratory and heart functions to the point of shutting them down, causing death.

Treatments and drugs

Alcohol poisoning treatment usually involves supportive care while your body rids itself of the alcohol. This typically includes:

  • Careful monitoring
  • Airway protection to prevent breathing or choking problems
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Administration of fluids through a vein (intravenously) to prevent dehydration

Prevention

Here are some tips to avoid alcohol poisoning:

  • Be moderate. To prevent alcohol poisoning, consume alcoholic beverages in moderation, if at all. Most doctors recommend no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two a day for men. A standard drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Also, try to enjoy your drink over time. Sip, don't gulp.
  • Communicate with your teens. Talk to your teenage children about the dangers of alcohol. Binge drinking increases during adolescence and usually peaks between the ages of 18 and 22, decreasing thereafter. Evidence suggests that children who are warned about alcohol by their parents and who report close relationships with their parents are less likely to start drinking.
  • Store products safely. If you have small children in the house, store alcohol-containing products, including cosmetics and medications, out of the reach of your children. Child-proof bathroom and kitchen cabinets to prevent access to household cleaners and keep potentially toxic items in your garage or storage area safely out of reach. Consider keeping alcoholic beverages under lock and key.


THL Blase di Angelo
Kingdom Chirurgeon


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