Black coffee won’t help. Nor will making someone sick. Or leaving them to sleep it off.
In fact, these traditional ways of trying to sober up a friend can do far more harm than good. Particularly if the friend is actually experiencing acute alcohol poisoning – which can be difficult to spot initially.
They may have only had a few drinks, or they could have downed several, but this isn’t always an indicator. By recognising the signs of acute alcohol poisoning and knowing what to do, you could save someone’s life.
Alcohol is a poison
It may not seem like it but alcohol is a poison and can sometimes have lethal consequences.
Your body can only process one unit of alcohol an hour. Drink a lot in a short space of time and the amount of alcohol in the blood can stop the body from working properly.
slow down your brain functions so you lose your sense of balance.
irritate the stomach which causes vomiting and it stops your gag reflex from working properly – you can choke on, or inhale, your own vomit into your lungs.
affect the nerves that control your breathing and heartbeat, stopping both.
dehydrate you, which can cause permanent brain damage.
lower the body’s temperature, which can lead to hypothermia.
lower your blood sugar levels, so you could have seizures.
It can be a very fine line. One minute your house guest is stupidly drunk, the next they’ve become dangerously intoxicated.
Being aware of alcohol poisoning symptoms is crucial, because if a person you care about is suffering from acute alcohol poisoning, they will be in no state to help themselves.
Symptoms to look out for are:
Loss of coordination
Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
Blue-tinged or pale skin
Low body temperature (hypothermia)
Stupor – when someone’s conscious but unresponsive
Unconsciousness – passing out
Find out the effects alcohol can have on your brain and stomach
Know what not to do
Acute alcohol poisoning can be extremely dangerous. Your best intentions could make it worse. There are so many myths around about how to deal with people who’ve drunk to excess, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re aware of what NOT to do:
Never leave someone to sleep it off. The amount of alcohol in someone’s blood continues to rise even when they’re not drinking. That’s because alcohol in the digestive system carries on being absorbed into the bloodstream. Too much alcohol in the blood stops the body working properly.
Never give them a coffee. Alcohol dehydrates the body. Coffee will make someone who is already dehydrated even more so. Severe dehydration can cause permanent brain damage.
Never make them sick. Their gag reflex won’t be working properly which means they could choke on their vomit.
Never walk them around. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down your brain’s functions and affects your sense of balance. Walking them around might cause accidents.
Never put them under a cold shower. Alcohol lowers your body temperature, which could lead to hypothermia. A cold shower could make them colder than they already are.
Never let them drink any more alcohol. The amount of alcohol in their bloodstream could become dangerously high.
There is no minimum amount of alcohol that could cause alcohol poisoning
It’s true that binge drinking is often the cause of alcohol poisoning. But not always.
It depends on your age, sex, size, weight, how fast you’ve been drinking, how much you’ve eaten, your general health and other drugs you might have taken.
Both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week. But to keep short-term risks (like accidents or injury) from drinking low the advice is to limit how much you drink on one occasion.
Don’t wait for all the symptoms to show before getting help
Better safe than sorry is the rule for alcohol poisoning.
Five things to do if someone is showing signs of alcohol poisoning
Try to keep them awake and sitting up.
Give them some water, if they can drink it.
Lie them on their side in the recovery position if they’ve passed out, and check they’re breathing properly.