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Tip 3:          Alcohol Poisoning

What exactly is alcohol poisoning?

Michael K.,   Keene State College, Junior

A student on my campus died from alcohol poisoning.  His friends told me they thought he was just sleeping it off.  They feel horrible!  How can you tell if someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning?


Alcohol changes brain chemistry and can be lethal in high doses.  Death from alcohol poisoning is a result of the depressant action of alcohol on the brain centers that control consciousness, respiration and heart rate.  As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can depress these vital brain centers resulting first in coma and then death.  An additional complication is that alcohol also depresses the gag reflex. This reflex is responsible for allowing our bodies to vomit - to rid the body of the extra alcohol it cannot process. (See Tip #24: Vomiting) If the gag reflex is unable to work properly, our systems continue to absorb excessive levels of alcohol thus contributing to a greater risk for alcohol poisoning.


The symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Cold, clammy and pale or bluish skin color.

  • The drinker won’t wake up even after yelling the person’s name or pinching him/her.

  • The drinker’s breathing rate is less than 10 times per minute and/or there are more than 10 seconds between breaths.

  • A strong odor of alcoholic beverage.


How much is too much?  Most medical professionals agree that a Blood Alcohol Level (BAL) of .40% or greater can kill someone.  However, there are many cases of death occurring at lower BALs and people surviving at higher BALs. If you are having difficulty in determining whether an individual is acutely intoxicated, contact a health professional immediately - you cannot afford to guess.


If you call 911 and are waiting for emergency transport, gently turn the intoxicated person on his/her side.  Help him/her maintain that position by placing a pillow in the small of the person's back. This is important because it can help prevent aspiration (choking) should the person vomit. Stay with the person until medical help arrives. 


Some students admit they are afraid of getting a heavily intoxicated drinker in trouble.  My response: “Which would you rather have, an angry friend or a dead friend?”



If you have even the slightest doubt about someone’s condition, get professional help.  If you suspect other drugs have also been ingested, be sure to tell the medical professionals.

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