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Opinions of Monday, 28 January 2019

Columnist: Richard Owusu Nyarko

Overview of alcohol poisoning: the dos and don’ts

Alcohol in the form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is found in alcoholic beverages, mouthwashes, cooking extracts, some medications and certain household products.

Ethyl alcohol poisoning generally results from drinking too many alcoholic beverages, especially in a short period of time. Other forms of alcohol, including isopropyl alcohol (found in rubbing alcohol, lotions and some cleaning products) and methanol or ethylene glycol (a common ingredient in antifreeze, paints and solvents) can cause other types of toxic poisoning that require emergency treatment.

Alcohol poisoning is a serious consequence of drinking either small or large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, with one’s body weight, the fatty tissues one has and other circulatory dynamics in consideration.

Drinking too much or too small, depending on the percentage per volume quickly, can affect your breathing, heart rate, body temperature and gag reflex and potentially lead to a coma and death if not helped by a licensed health professional or assisted by people who are close to be rushed to the hospital.

Alcohol poisoning can also occur when adults or children accidentally or intentionally drink household products that contain alcohol. A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical attention.

Acute poisoning

There are crude methods to help relatives, friends or strangers when in this situation, but when it is not handled by a trained professional, it can do far more harm than good. Particularly in the case of acute alcohol poisoning, this can be extremely hard to assess.

Affected persons may only have had few drinks or drunk several, but that cannot always be a cardinal sign. By recognising the signs of acute alcohol poisoning and knowing what to do, you could save someone’s life.

Alcohol can be poisonous and can sometimes have lethal consequences in the human system, affecting multiple organs such as the liver and accessory organs, causing liver cirrhosis and cancer, hepato-splenomegaly – liver and spleen enlargement, kidneys and accessory organs – causing acute renal failure, renal stasis, prostate enlargement and cancer, heart and blood vessel diseases – causing cardiac arrhythmias, migraines, heart failures, hypertension, heart valve diseases, mucosal linings of the stomach and intestines, predisposing them to gastric and duodenal ulcers and in severe forms organ failure.

The human body can only process one unit of alcohol an hour. If alcohol is taken in excess within a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in getting into the circulatory system and blood can stop the body from effective functioning.


Alcohol can do a lot of discomforts and affect the whole human system and distort functions. Severe complications can result from alcohol poisoning, including:

Choking, that is, alcohol may cause vomiting. Because it depresses your gag reflex, this increases the risk of choking on vomiting if you have passed out. Stopping breathing, that is, accidentally inhaling vomit into your lungs can lead to a dangerous or fatal interruption of breathing (asphyxiation).

Severe dehydration, that is, vomiting, which can result in severe dehydration, leading to dangerously low blood pressure and fast heart rate. Seizures, which happen when your blood sugar level may drop low enough to cause seizures.

Hypothermia may occur when our body temperature drops so low that it leads to cardiac arrest.

Irregular heartbeat, that is, alcohol poisoning that can cause the heart to beat irregularly or even stop.

Brain damage, with heavy drinking sometimes causing irreversible brain damage. Death, meaning any of the issues above, which can lead to death.

Some cardinal symptoms to look out for when you suspecting alcohol poisoning in relatives, friends or anyone you meet drunk are:

Confusion, loss of coordination, vomiting, seizures, irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute), Blue-tinged or pale skin, low body temperature (hypothermia), stupor, that is when a person is conscious but unresponsive, unconsciousness (when someone is passing out and cannot be awakened).

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 have been drinking, how much you have eaten, your general health and other drugs you might have taken. The more you drink, especially in a short period of time, the greater your risk of alcohol poisoning.

First aid

Try to keep the person affected awake and in an upright position. Give them some water, if they can drink it, lay them on their side in the recovery position if they have passed out and check that they are breathing properly. Keep them warm, stay with them and monitor their symptoms. If they are not getting any better, just call for help and for an ambulance. Prevention

• Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink of alcoholic beer a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men aged 65 and younger.

When you do drink, enjoy your drink slowly. The general public can operate within the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines which say both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week or 20mls of gin or whisky for men per day and 10ml for women.

• Mixed drinks may contain more than one serving of alcohol and take even longer to metabolise so it is advisable never to mix alcoholic drinks to prevent easy alcoholic poisoning.

• Don't drink on an empty stomach. Having some food in your stomach may slow alcohol absorption somewhat, although it won't prevent alcohol poisoning if, for example, you're binge drinking.

• As it is always said, it is better safe than sorry is the rule for alcohol poisoning. If you think someone might be experiencing it, even if you have doubts, call for help and ambulance because alcohol poisoning symptoms is crucial and affected persons will be in no state to help themselves.

• The general public can operate within the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines which says both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week or the American Heart Association's own which says maximum of two bottles of beer for men a day; one for women and 20mls of gin or whisky for men per day and 10ml for women.

• There should be mass public health education on alcohol poisoning and generalised first aid training for all workers of restaurant, cafeteria, bar or drinking spots on how to manage cases of this nature while transporting patients to the nearby health facility, especially during festive seasons such as Christmas, Easter etc.

• The regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drugs Authority should be up and standing to monitor right concentrations of ethanol in alcoholic beverages on the markets.

The writer is a holder of BSc., MHCM, MBA - A Senior Health Care Practitioner, Health Research Scientist & Graduate entry medical student in Accra. Email: