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The Very Real Threat of Alcohol Poisoning

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With prom season, graduation, and the start of summer upon us, it’s more important than ever to be aware of teen alcohol abuse—and the very real threat of alcohol poisoning. While most parents are somewhat aware of the dangers of hard drugs, they may become overly comfortable or inadvertently complacent about their teens’ use of alcohol, thinking that drinking is just a right of passage and “not so bad,” especially in comparison to pills and hard drugs.  

While telling your teen not to drink is unlikely to keep him or her from doing so, turning a blind eye is not only ignorant—it’s dangerous. Despite what many parents think, it is not safer for teens to drink “at home.” The illusion that kids are safe as long as they’re not drinking and driving is just that—an illusion. According to Anne Duval Frost, PHD, RN, founder and president of Project Community, Inc. (formerly known as Nurses’ Network of America), “People think they’re safe if they drink at home,” but, often, home is where many incidents of alcohol poisoning—which can all too easily become fatal—happen. “It happens at home and at parties, because this is where people tend to binge. The problem is that the body can only detoxify one drink per hour, so if you’re throwing back five shots of vodka, you’re talking five hours to detoxify.”  

Unfortunately, once somebody has ingested an amount of alcohol that cannot be detoxified quickly enough, “All the hospital can do is keep them warm and keep them hydrated, but if the liver doesn’t detox in time, they die,” says Frost. “The brain stem controls breathing and cardiac function. If there is too much alcohol, it stops functioning.”

While Ronald Nutovits, MD, FAEP, chairman of Emergency Services at New York Presbyterian/Hudson Valley Hospital, advises that “prevention is best,” if kids do drink, it is paramount that both parents and teens recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning and know how to respond quickly and appropriately. First of all, he cautions, “Never leave your teen—or anyone—alone who is drunk. Make sure he or she can answer questions appropriately, and continue to observe the person to ensure that he or she is getting better, not worse, that he or she is becoming more, not less, alert.” In addition, adds Nutovits, “Alcohol is a caustic agent, so vomiting is common. The problem with vomiting is that a person who is very drunk may lose their gag reflex and aspirate. Don’t let them go to sleep because you don’t know if they’re getting worse. If they are vomiting, lay them down on their side with the head turned to the side so that the vomit comes to the side. Don’t let them lie on their back or stomach.”

Frost agrees: “Because there is no gag reflex, the vomit can go into your lungs. A lot of people think that hot coffee will sober up someone who’s drunk but, again, because there’s no gag reflex, the liquid can go into your lungs and you can literally drown.”

Nutovits explains that, “With alcohol poisoning, there is depression of the brain—heart, breathing, and temperature. If your child [or friend or family member] is not breathing as often, if they are becoming less alert or unresponsive, feel cold or their skin is pale, call 911.”

Both Nutovits and Frost concur that cold showers and hot coffee not only won’t help, but can do more harm than good. “The only thing that can make it better is time,” says Nutovits. “A cold shower doesn’t help, because their body temperature is already low.”  And as Frost elaborates, “The problem with drinking is that your blood vessels dilate and you get cold, so, depending on their health, if you put them in a cold shower, it could kill them. Nothing speeds up sobering, except the liver.”

 

How to help a friend with alcohol poisoning (from Project Rewind and Project Community):

DO:

  • Call 911!
  • Stay with them.
  • Lay them on their left side.
  • Keep them warm and cover with them a blanket or jacket.
  • Tell what you know about alcohol and drugs used.

DON’T:

  • Let them drown on dry land! (Alcohol is liquid anesthesia—it depresses the brain’s ability to control the gag reflex. Don’t give food, liquid, or medicine; these could enter the airway and cut off breathing.)
  • Make them cold-hearted! (Liquid anesthesia depresses the brain’s ability to regulate body temperature. Don’t put them in a cold shower; it could cause a heart attack.)
  • Let them walk if they can’t talk! (Liquid anesthesia depresses the brain’s center for coordination. Don’t let them walk; a fall can cause bleeding and/or swelling of the brain.)
  • Let them sleep or you may weep! (Blood-alcohol levels continue to rise even after the last drink. The liver metabolizes only one drink per hour. Passing out means the brain stem is involved; breathing can stop, the heart can stop.)
  • Leave them alone! (They cannot fend for themselves. They may go into a coma.)

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