Here’s What “Alcohol Poisoning” Really Means

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
No one goes out with the intention of ending up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning, but as anyone who went to college knows, these things happen. The first and most important thing to remember, of course, is that they don't need to happen, says Christopher Tedeschi, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. "Just because it's your birthday doesn't mean you need to drink all those kamikaze shots," he tells R29 in an email. The vast majority of people who drink don't end up hospitalized, but when things get out of hand, it's important to be able to recognize it. We asked Dr. Tedeschi about what alcohol poisoning actually is — and how to recognize it.
"'Alcohol poisoning' (or severe intoxication) is just another way to say 'very, very drunk,'" Dr. Tedeschi says. "[It] means that our mental status is altered, our respiration is depressed, and we may not even be able to protect our airway." At that point, patients require monitoring and other supportive treatments to help them sober up. Luckily, spotting it is pretty easy: If your drinking companion is passed out and isn't responding to her name or being touched or shaken, it's time to call 911. "If someone is basically comatose because of drinking too much alcohol, that's a dangerous sign," says Dr. Tedeschi. Once they're at the hospital, patients will get IV fluids and will be watched closely to make sure they stay stable and that they don't vomit or choke. If it's really serious, they may also be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe. You have to be very, very drunk to need this kind of treatment, so if you do end up in the ER with severe intoxication even once, cautions Dr. Tedeschi, it's important to ask yourself how healthy your drinking habits really are. Dr. Tedeschi adds that a lot of visits to the ER are related to alcohol in some way. Outside of dangerous levels of drunkenness, these booze-related incidents can include "minor trauma [like falling], car or boat crashes, or problems like vomiting or dehydration," he says. "And let's face it — most ER visits for minor injuries after bar brawls are also alcohol-related. (And that holds true for women, too.)" Another thing to note is that people who take certain prescription medications should be extra careful, since some drugs can make you feel drunker faster. If you take sleep aids, antihistamines, or antidepressants, it's important to check with your doctor about any interactions they might have with alcohol, so you can pace yourself accordingly.
All this doesn't mean you have to totally forgo your favorite summer cocktails; it just means that you've got to be smart about it and drink responsibly. Dr. Tedeschi's parting advice for doing that: "Remember to have something to eat, and to drink some non-alcoholic beverages, especially on hot summer days."

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