Alcohol consumption can lead to acute alcohol poisoning

Alcohol is a harmful substance for the human body. Its toxicity depends on several factors, such as a beverage’s strength and volume, and the period over which beverages are consumed. Personal characteristics also have an impact, such as gender, size, genes and medication. Although the symptoms experienced in the early stages of intoxication can also be considered a case of mild poisoning, alcohol poisoning is usually taken to mean a more severe case of intoxication that requires treatment.

Being tipsy is mild alcohol poisoning

Poisoning refers to the dysfunction that a substance causes in the body. The usual – and usually desired – result of drinking alcohol is feeling tipsy, which is itself a mild case of poisoning. However, alcohol poisoning usually refers to a state in which organ dysfunction is clearly detrimental.

When drunk, ethanol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach, and is then transported to the brain and other organs. The effect peaks in about half an hour, and intoxication will gradually become more pronounced if you continue drinking. Fasting will accelerate the absorption of alcohol, that is, you will get intoxicated more quickly if you drink on an empty stomach. Alcohol mixed with carbonated beverages may also be absorbed more quickly, as the carbon dioxide may help to empty your stomach.

The symptoms of mild alcohol poisoning (that is, being tipsy) occur as the ethanol content in your blood and brain rises. These symptoms are often considered pleasant and include happiness, courage and lowered inhibitions. Ethanol and its metabolites are thought to affect many neurotransmission systems that make us feel good, such as the dopamine system. They are also known to cause dependency.

As the poisoning becomes more severe (that is, you get drunk), it becomes more difficult to concentrate and speak, your movements become uncoordinated, and you may experience confusion or memory loss. People behave very differently when they are drunk: some may seem relatively sober, while others may act like completely different people when only a bit tipsy.

Acute alcohol poisoning can be fatal

In cases of severe alcohol poisoning, the person’s central nervous system will start shutting down and they will fall into an unconscious state from which they cannot easily be roused. Large doses of ethanol also impair breathing, heart function, and the functionality of the muscles in the mouth and throat. This means that sleeping in a bad position or vomiting while unconscious can be fatal. Intoxication is also known to expose people to the threat of both minor and life-threatening accidents.

It is not only those who knowingly drink alcohol that end up with alcohol poisoning.  Ethanol and other alcohols are used as solvents in products such as cosmetics, paints, antifreeze and disinfectants. It is always a good idea to keep liquids containing alcohol – both beverages and household chemicals – out of reach of children and people with dementia.

Do not leave an unconscious person alone – what should you do if you suspect serious alcohol poisoning?

If the person does not wake up after being lightly shaken, place them on their side to keep their respiratory tract open and call the emergency number (112) for help. If the person is exhibiting severe symptoms – such as confusion, vomiting and chest pains, or has signs of external wounds such as cuts, swelling or bruises – they should be brought to the accident and emergency department, even if they are conscious. An urgent trip to A&E is also in order if you suspect that someone has drunk moonshine or an alcoholic product that is not intended for consumption, such as windshield washer fluid, as poisoning cases like these are more life-threatening. If the person has drunk a product that is not intended for consumption, or if you suspect drug poisoning in addition to alcohol, you should also contact the Poison Information Center, which provides 24/7 advice (tel. +358 (0)800 147 111).

Minors are prohibited from consuming or possessing alcohol. However, if a child has drunk alcohol, they should be brought to the accident and emergency department, as even a small quantity of alcohol can cause a life-threatening drop in blood sugar for young children. Repeated alcohol use while young can also lead to problems later in life – such as poor memory, concentration and spatial ability – and this damage may even be permanent. Read more about why alcohol is not suitable for young people.

The hospital treatment provided for alcohol poisoning usually depends on the symptoms. For example, breathing and circulatory difficulties will be treated with the aid of medication and equipment, and an intravenous drip will be used to restore the patient’s fluid and saline balance. If it is suspected that the patient still has alcohol in their stomach, it may be pumped out to prevent more severe poisoning.

Can acute alcohol poisoning be prevented?

There is no safe limit that will prevent acute alcohol poisoning. In Finland, alcohol is the most commonly used intoxicant whose use is known to lead to either acute poisoning or permanent health problems on a relatively regular basis. If you do drink alcohol, moderation is recommended, as the risk of long-term problems and acute alcohol poisoning will be lower.

Article writer: Maria Kaista, Medical Specialist, HUS acute care, Poison Information Center and Prehospital emergency care