It used to be that we’d look at an addict and consider his or her suffering a sign of weak or defective character, selfishness, and of being a bad person. Addiction was seen as being voluntary. However, we’ve come to understand that while the onset of addiction is willful, addiction itself is actually a very serious chronic brain disease. In fact, it was in studying alcoholism—the most infamous form of addiction—that we came to learn so much about chemical dependency and substance abuse disorders with that knowledge being used to develop more effective treatments for those who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction.
Like all addicts, alcoholics don’t consciously choose to develop alcoholism. The precursor to alcoholism is an increasing dependence on the intoxicating effects of alcohol, leading casual or social drinks to become frequent drinkers while their bodies become chemically dependent on alcohol. As alcoholism progresses, alcoholics develop a tolerance to alcohol, requiring them to drink larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effects. The sheer volume of alcohol that is required for late-stage alcoholics to become intoxicated has led questions regarding whether it’s possible for individuals to overdose on alcohol like you would overdose on other substances like heroin or cocaine. Although alcohol works a little differently than most other substances, even alcoholics with high tolerance to alcohol can cross the line, drinking so much alcohol that it directly endangers their lives.
The Effects of Increasing Alcohol Consumption
In order to understand how one could overdose on alcohol, it’s necessary to review how alcohol affects the bodies of those whose drink it. When a person consumes high amounts of alcohol, he or she becomes intoxicated. Alcohol intoxication is defined as a state of physiological, psychological, and behavioral impairment that occurs when alcohol is consumed and enters the bloodstream faster than the alcohol can be metabolized by the liver. As such, the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream—called the blood alcohol content (BAC) or blood alcohol level)—has a positive correlation with level of intoxication, which means that as the alcohol content of one’s blood increases, he or she experiences stronger intoxication.
Alcohol intoxication produces a number of effects that users consider desirable, which tends to be the reason why intentionally drinking high enough volumes of alcohol to produce intoxication are so widespread. In fact, alcohol is identified as the most widely abused mind-altering substance in the world, both historically and today. Alcohol, or more specifically ethanol, is a depressant on the central nervous system, impairing motor coordination as well as one’s thinking and behavior. Even at lower amounts, the earliest effects that alcohol induces are impaired coordination and ataxia—irregular gait—, flushed skin, euphoria, and feelings of social inhibition. As individuals continue to consume alcohol, the body’s ability to maintain balance is compromised, judgment is impaired, and individuals become very volatile and experience abrupt mood swings. With still more alcohol, speech becomes noticeably slurred, individuals often become exceedingly drowsy, ataxia is even more pronounced, and it’s common for individuals to experience nausea and/or vomiting. With even more drinking, individuals begin to experience memory loss as the mood becomes even more unstable and many individuals will begin drifting in and out of consciousness. Although many of these levels of intoxication are exceedingly dangerous, it’s beyond this point that individuals become likely to experience an alcohol overdose.
Whereas drugs consumed to such as point of excess that the individual is at risk of death is called overdose, different terminology is used in reference to comparable states induced by consumption of alcohol. When alcohol consumption reaches such a high level, users are at risk of a variety of life-threatening effects. For one thing, as a central nervous system depressant alcohol at exceedingly high levels can lead to respiratory depression, which will cause individuals to stop breathing. However, a condition called alcohol poisoning is somewhat the alcoholism equivalent of overdosing on drugs.
When an individual drinks a large volume of alcohol in a relatively short period of time, the body is unable to metabolize the alcohol fast enough to prevent it from building up in the system, which results in the blood containing a dangerously high level of alcohol, or having a high BAC. What’s more, such a high concentration of alcohol in the blood can lead to suffering from alcohol poisoning, which is dangerous at best and fatal at worst. In short, alcohol poisoning can be defined as the presence of so much alcohol in the body that the brain becomes unable to continue controlling the most basic and essential life-support functions—which include regulating heartbeats, breathing, and temperature—and causes the body to begin shutting down.
The varied symptoms of alcohol poisoning include all of the many side effects of alcohol intoxication—impaired coordination, social inhibition, ataxia, mood swings, nausea, drowsiness, and so on—as well as seizures, slowed or irregular breathing, skin appearing somewhat blue in color, hypothermia—low body temperature—, becoming unresponsive as if in a stupor, and uncontrollable vomiting. It’s not uncommon for alcohol poisoning can render victims in a coma or result in their death in the equivalent of an alcohol overdose.
What to Do When Someone is Suffering from Alcohol Poisoning
Unfortunately, the severity of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning make it unlikely that you’d be able to help someone who’s suffering from alcohol poisoning. If left to their own devices, individuals suffering from alcohol poisoning will likely lose consciousness, fall into a coma, and/or die. In fact, it’s incredibly dangerous to assume that someone who’s passed out from drinking alcohol will be fine if left on their own. Due to the impairment caused in the brain, many vital functions don’t work properly, including the gag reflex, and since alcohol irritates the stomach, the individual could aspirate on their own vomit as well. The most appropriate response to an individual’s suffering from alcohol poisoning is to call 911 emergency services or transport the individual to the hospital as soon as possible.
If you or someone you love suffering from addiction to alcohol or drugs, the Palm Beach Institute is here to help. Our recovery specialists have guided countless addicts toward recovery and a better, healthier life. Don’t wait—call us today.