What to do about alcohol poisoning? Acute alcohol poisoning generally does not cause permanent damage (exception: pregnancy). With chronic alcohol consumption, the persistent poisoning leads to changes in organs and metabolism that ultimately end in death.
Alcohol intoxication is usually ethanol poisoning. Ethanol is the so-called drinking alcohol that is contained in alcoholic beverages. Poisoning with other alcohols such as isopropanol, methanol or ethylene is possible, but is rather the exception.
Alcohol poisoning initially limits the brain’s functionality. This explains most of the symptoms of mild or severe intoxication. In addition, alcohol is a cell poison that primarily attacks the liver.
Acute alcohol poisoning generally does not cause permanent damage (exception: pregnancy). With chronic alcohol consumption (alcohol abuse or alcoholism), the persistent poisoning leads to serious changes in organs and metabolism, which ultimately end in death. In acute alcohol poisoning, there is an acute danger to life from a blood alcohol concentration of 4 per mille.
The incidence of alcohol poisoning has been at a very high level since 2012, but has decreased slightly. In 2015, according to the Federal Statistical Office, almost 114,000 people were treated for acute alcohol poisoning in hospitals. Among them are 22,000 children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19.
So much for the official numbers. The number of unreported cases will be significantly higher. Not every heavy high ends in the hospital. Chronic alcoholics and occasional drinkers sleep off their alcohol poisoning and the hangover that follows at home or on the street.
Most people are familiar with the typical symptoms of acute alcohol poisoning, often from their own experience. Doctors divide the symptoms into four stages according to the blood alcohol concentration.
- Stage 1: 0.2 to 2 per thousand (excitation)
- Stage 2: 2 to 2.5 per thousand (hypnosis)
- Stage 3: 2.5 to 4 (anesthesia)
- Stage 4: over 4 parts per thousand (asphyxia).
The effects of blood alcohol concentrations are very different individually. They depend, among other things, on drinking habits, weight and age, as well as gender and many other factors.
In stage 1 (excitation stage) the mood-enhancing and relaxing effects of alcohol usually still predominate. Above all, negative consequences are slightly pronounced balance disorders, indistinct (slurping) speech and a longer reaction time.
In stage 2 (hypnosis stage) there are already serious restrictions in brain function. These are manifested, among other things, in clear balance and coordination disorders, language and articulation difficulties, visual disturbances with narrowed pupils and greatly slowed reactions. The body often tries to eliminate alcohol by vomiting.
In the 3rd stage (anesthesia stage) alcohol poisoning becomes seriously life-threatening. This stage is characterized by loss of consciousness and shock. The stage of anesthesia can be recognized by, among other things, enlarged pupils, rapid drop in blood pressure and racing pulse.
In the 4th stage (asphyxia stage) of alcohol poisoning, the victims fell into a coma. The pupils are wide and unresponsive. Now there is an imminent circulatory failure with a fatal end. Body cooling (hypothermia) or respiratory arrests are also possible end points of asphyxia.
Fatal courses of alcohol poisoning can also occur far below the 4 per mille limit. There are also people who have survived blood alcohol concentrations of more than 6 per thousand. However, these were long-term alcoholics who were used to consumption.
Alcohol poisoning is usually caused by excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. Accidental poisoning is rare. They mainly affect children who unintentionally swallow alcohol or liquids containing alcohol such as disinfectants, medicines or cleaning agents.
The treatment of alcohol poisoning with more than 2 parts per thousand and the treatment of children and adolescents is usually done in an intensive care unit. Because of the risk of a circulatory collapse (shock), those affected are closely monitored. Surveillance also serves to prevent victims from suffocating from vomit.
In order to stabilize the circulation and lower the blood alcohol concentration, infusions with glucose and electrolytes are given. Other acute medical treatment options are individually supplemented.
After about 24 hours, there is generally no longer any danger to life from acute alcohol poisoning. Adults are usually released. If severe after-effects are expected, children and adolescents often remain in clinical treatment for 1 to 3 days for observation.