Alcohol Poisoning, Alcohol Abuse, and How to Help

Alcohol Poisoning Signs and Response

Alcohol is a central Nervous System Depressant, so too much can have dangerous effects, such as slowing down and even stopping central nervous system functions (breathing, heart rate, and brain function) which can lead to death. So it is important that everyone know how to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do in that situation.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

  1. Person is unconscious or semi-conscious and cannot be awakened.
  2. Cold, clammy, pale or bluish skin (indicates blood is not flowing to organs and possible hypothermia)
  3. Slow or irregular breathing: less than 8 to 12 times per minute, or irregular breathing with 10 seconds or more between breaths
  4. Vomiting while “sleeping” or passed out, and not waking up after vomiting

If a person has ANY of these symptoms, he or she is suffering from ACUTE ALCOHOL INTOXICATION, which can be fatal and is a medical emergency. 

Follow These Steps

  1. Know the warning signs and do not wait for all the symptoms to be present to do something—just one symptom is enough to get medical help.
  2. Get help. Call someone, a staff member, an ambulance, CPS (2230)
  3. Do NOT leave the person alone. Turn the victim on his/her side to prevent choking in case of vomiting. You can put a pillow in the small of the person’s back to maintain this position.
  4. Someone (who is sober) needs to check the person every 10 to 15 minutes to make sure he or she is breathing regularly and has not vomited.
  5. Always be “better safe than sorry” if you are not sure what to do.

Seeking Assistance

Even if you don’t see the classic signs and symptoms, but suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, err on the side of caution: seek immediate medical care. In an emergency, follow these suggestions:

If the person is unconscious, breathing fewer than eight times a minute, or has repeated and uncontrolled vomiting, call 911. Even when someone is unconscious or has stopped drinking, alcohol continues to be released into the bloodstream and the level of alcohol in the body continues to rise. Never assume that a person will "sleep off" alcohol poisoning.

Don’t leave an unconscious person alone. While waiting for help, turn the person on his or her side; don’t try to make the person vomit. People who have alcohol poisoning have an impaired gag reflex and may choke on their own vomit or accidentally inhale (aspirate) vomit into their lungs, which could cause a fatal lung injury.
Your assistance and support in helping the University keep you and your fellow students safe is most appreciated.

How to Help Someone who has a Substance Abuse Problem

Being the friend of someone with a substance abuse problem can be really difficult. On one hand, you want to help them before they seriously injure themselves or someone else - on the other hand you don't want to upset them, get them in trouble, or ruin your friendship. Here are some tips on how to help someone you care about who has a substance abuse problem.

  • Show your concern for your friend and express how you feel about what you are seeing. Use "I" statements to diffuse defensiveness (e.g. "Conrad, I feel really scared when you get so drunk - I don't want anything to happen to you.")
  • Be considerate of your friend’s privacy; choose a time and place that is away from other people when you choose to have a conversation about the issue. Do not confront your friend while he or she is intoxicated or high; choose a time when you are both sober and calm.
  • Recognize that your friend may not realize that there is a problem, or your friend may become defensive and even deny that such a problem exists.
  • Focus the conversation on the behaviors that concern you, citing specific examples when your friend put her or himself or someone else at risk. Do not attack the person’s character, but stay focused on the behaviors and consequences.
  • Share with your friend the resources that are available on campus to help or support students with substance abuse problems or concerns. Make sure your friend knows where he/she can get this assistance. The Pacific University Counseling Center, Health Center, and Campus Wellness Office are all good resources.
  • Support your friends, but don’t protect them from the consequences of their behavior. Help them understand what those consequences are before it is too late.
  • Support your friend once he/she has recognized that there is a problem. Stick by when times are tough.
  • Do not feel that you must accept responsibility for your friend’s behavior.
  • Try to avoid putting yourself in a position in which you are invited to drink alcohol or use drugs with your friend.
  • Get support. This can be a tough time for your relationship. The Counseling Center and the Campus Wellness Office both offer consultations on this topic. Talking with a professional can sometimes give you new ideas or perspectives.

Warning Signs

Worried that you or your friend might have a drinking problem? If you answer yes to one or more of these warning signs, there may be an alcohol problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Getting drunk on a regular basis
  • Hiding or lying about how much alcohol he or she is using
  • Believing that alcohol is necessary to have fun
  • Having frequent hangovers
  • Feeling run-down, depressed, or even that life is not worth living
  • Experiencing “blackouts” – forgetting what occurred while drinking
  • Having problems at school or getting in trouble with the law (i.e. getting in fights, physically harming others, domestic disputes)
  • Avoiding friends in order to get drunk
  • Giving up activities he or she used to do – sports, homework, spending time with friends who don't drink
  • Having to drink more to get drunk
  • Constantly talking about drinking
  • Pressuring others to drink
  • Taking risks such as driving under the influence of alcohol or taking sexual risks
  • Missing school or work (or performing poorly at work or school) because of drinking

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

Adapted from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Incorporated website

Experts make a distinction between alcohol abuse and alcoholism (also called alcohol dependence).  Unlike alcoholism, alcohol abusers have some ability to set limits on their drinking.  However, their alcohol use is still self-destructive and dangerous to themselves, can progress into alcoholism and they need help.

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work including: 

  • Repeatedly Neglecting Responsibilities:  Because of drinking, repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school.  For example, neglecting the children, performing poorly at work, poor or failing grades in school, or skipping out on work, school, personal or social commitments because you’re hung over.
  • Alcohol Use in Dangerous Situations:  The use of alcohol in situations where it can be physically dangerous, such as drinking and driving, drinking in an unknown or unsafe social environment, mixing alcohol with prescription medication against the advice of your doctor or operating machinery while drinking.
  • Legal Problems Due to Drinking:  If, due to drinking, you are experiencing repeated legal problems.  For example, getting arrested for fights, drunk and disorderly conduct, domestic disputes, driving under the influence.
  • Continued Drinking Despite Relationship Problems:  Alcohol is causing or making problems worse in your relationships with your friends, family or spouse, and you continue to drink.  For example, fighting with your family because they don’t like how you act when you drink or going out and drinking with your buddies even though you know your partner will be very upset.
  • Drinking to De-Stress:  Many drinking problems start when people use alcohol to relieve stress.  Because alcohol is a sedative drug, over time, you will need more alcohol to have the same effect. Getting drunk after a very stressful day more often, for example, or reaching for a bottle after you have an argument with boss, a friend or a partner more frequently.

What is the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse?

Not all alcohol abusers develop alcohol dependence or alcoholism, but it is a major risk factor.  Sometimes alcoholism develops suddenly in response to a genetic predisposition from a family history of alcoholism or due to a stressful change, such as a breakup, retirement, or another loss.  Other times, it gradually creeps up on you as your tolerance to alcohol increases.  If a person is a binge drinker or drinks every day, the risks of developing alcoholism are even greater.

Signs and symptoms of alcoholism

Alcoholism involves all the symptoms of alcohol abuse, but also involves another element: physical dependence.

  • Tolerance: Tolerance means that, over time, you need more alcohol to feel the same effect.  Do you drink more than you used to?  Do you drink more than other people without showing obvious signs of intoxication?
  • Withdrawal: As the effect of the alcohol wears off you may experience withdrawal symptoms:  anxiety or jumpiness; shakiness or trembling; sweating, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, depression, irritability, fatigue or loss of appetite and headaches.  Do you drink to steady the nerves, stop the shakes in the morning?  Drinking to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms is a sign of alcoholism and addiction.In severe cases, withdrawal from alcohol can be life-threatening and involve hallucinations, confusion, seizures, fever, and agitation.  These symptoms can be dangerous and should be managed by a physician specifically trained and experienced in dealing with alcoholism and addiction.
  • Loss of Control: Drinking more than you wanted to, for longer than you intended, or despite telling yourself that you wouldn’t do it this time.
  • Desire to Stop, But Can’t: You have a persistent desire to cut down or stop your alcohol use, but all efforts to stop and stay stopped, have been unsuccessful.
  • Neglecting Other Activities: You are spending less time on activities that used to be important to you (hanging out with family and friends, exercising- going to the gym, pursuing your hobbies or other interests) because of the use of alcohol.
  • Alcohol Takes Up Greater Time, Energy and Focus: You spend a lot of time drinking, thinking about it, or recovering from its effects. You have few, if any, interests, social or community involvement that don’t revolve around the use of alcohol.
  • Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences: You drink even though they know it’s causing problems.  As an example, you realize that your alcohol use is interfering with your ability to do your job, is damaging your marriage, making your problems worse, or causing health problems, but you continue to drink.