Alcohol Poisoning

Drinking too much too fast can kill you

When police found Bradley McCue, a student from Michigan State University, he was unconscious, his nose was painted red, and the words "24 shots" were scribbled across his forehead.

An autopsy revealed that McCue had a blood alcohol level of .44 percent. Witnesses said that he drank 24 shots of liquor in less than two hours. He died of acute alcohol intoxication—also known as alcohol poisoning.

Friends had taken McCue out drinking to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Cases such as McCue's are rare. However, each year several alcohol poisoning deaths on college campuses gain national attention. And the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD),  reports that hundreds die each year from acute alcohol intoxication.

Research reveals that binge drinking—consuming five or more drinks in a row on a single occasion—is common among college students. In 1997, the Harvard School of Public Health published the results of its College Alcohol Study. The bottom line: one in five college students binge drinks frequently (at least three times every two weeks).

According to the NCADD, many students are surprised to learn that they can die from an overdose of alcohol. Often, the worst they expect from a night of binge drinking is a blackout and bad hangover.

Changing these attitudes starts with knowing some facts. Blood alcohol levels skyrocket during binge drinking. When people who weigh 160 pounds take a single drink, their blood alcohol level rises .025 percent, on average. But for inexperienced drinkers, or those sensitive to alcohol, blood alcohol levels elevate faster and acute intoxication can result more quickly. Because of differences in body chemistry, women can overdose after drinking lesser amounts than men. The amount of alcohol in standard servings of wine (5 oz.), beer (12 oz.) and distilled spirits (1.5 oz., 80 proof) is the same. This fact refutes the myth that beer or wine present less danger to the binge drinker than "hard" liquor.

Alcohol poisoning quickly affects the bodily functions that sustain life. As a depressant, alcohol slows breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If blood alcohol levels rise sharply in a short time, the areas of the brain that control these functions can be sedated—literally put to sleep. When that happens, people lose consciousness and can die. People who poison themselves with alcohol can also die from choking on their own vomit.

We can respond to this problem on two levels. One is knowing the appropriate emergency procedures. According to the NCADD, critical signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Mental confusion or the person has passed out and can't be awoken
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness
If you encounter someone with these signs or symptoms, be aware that a person who has passed out could die.  Call 911. Then gently turn this person on his or her side. This helps to prevent choking after vomiting.

A second response is to prevent binge drinking. We can support campus policies that discourage drinking, such as providing alcohol-free residence halls and restricting pledging activities by fraternities and sororities. We can also reinforce abstinence from alcohol as the norm. The fact is that most college students drink moderately or not at all.
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