Health Break | Published September 12, 2005 | Written by Teresa S. Dolan, MD

Be Aware Of Alcohol-Related Health Emergencies

Fall has finally arrived in Happy Valley, bringing with it the excitement of a new school year, the start of another football season and many great reasons to celebrate. Tailgates, hayrides, picnics and parties reuniting friends after summer vacation are standard social fare at this time of year in Centre County. In order to enjoy ourselves safely at these events, it is worth considering the importance of alcohol safety.

As an emergency physician, I see many patients of all ages who come through the doors of our Emergency Department with injuries or illnesses related to alcohol consumption. These alcohol-related emergencies can be life threatening, or even deadly. Many of these injuries could be avoided by abstaining from drinking altogether.

No one should give in to pressure to drink alcohol. Drink only if you want to. Consider alternative non-alcoholic drinks like orange juice, non-alcoholic beer, or tonic water with lime in a glass.

For those who choose to drink alcohol, following these simple guidelines can help keep you safe and healthy:

  • Know your limit and stick to it, no exceptions made.

  • Drink slowly. You are apt to drink less. Nurse one drink during a party. Remember that drinking too much leads to being unable to enjoy yourself.

  • Eat when you drink. Food helps to slow alcohol absorption.

  • Alternate an alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic one.

  • Drink or serve non-alcoholic or reduced-alcohol beverages. Don’t drink distilled beverages straight. Dilute them. Use more mixer and less alcohol.

  • Don’t participate in drinking contests and games.

  • NEVER drink and drive and never let friends drink and drive. Always choose a designated driver.

  • NEVER mix alcohol with drugs, and be aware of interactions with your prescription medications. Don’t drink alcohol if you are taking sedatives, muscle relaxants or tranquilizers.

  • Do not serve alcohol to minors or to obviously intoxicated individuals.

Once you ensure your own safety when drinking alcohol, remember to take care of your friends and family. Be able to recognize the signs of alcohol intoxication or poisoning and know what to do.

Serious alcohol intoxication causes slurred speech, staggering, swaying, an inability to walk, sudden mood changes, glassy eyes, dilated pupils, inability to focus, bobbing head and sleepiness. There might be only a short period of time before someone who is intoxicated demonstrates signs of alcohol poisoning. Stay with any intoxicated friend or family member to make sure they arrive home safely. Make sure they don’t show any signs of alcohol poisoning or overdose.

Alcohol poisoning is an advanced stage of deep intoxication. It is crucial to be able to recognize signs and symptoms of an alcohol overdose. Call 911 immediately for one or more of the following signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Unconsciousness, meaning the person is hard to arouse and can’t be made aware of his or her surroundings. Episodes of unconsciousness can be brief, such as with fainting or blacking out. If an episode of unconsciousness is more prolonged, the person might appear to be sleeping. If a person is difficult to arouse after drinking heavily, don’t presume that they are sleeping, as he or she might actually be unconscious.
  • Vomiting repeatedly with an inability to wake up. This person could be at risk for aspiration or choking.

  • No breathing or slow and shallow breathing. This means 10 or fewer breaths per minute, or time lapses of more than eight seconds between breaths.

  • Slow pulse rate (40 or fewer beats per minute)

  • Skin that is clammy and cold or pale gray/blue in color

If someone demonstrates any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately and place the person on his or her side with knees bent. This can prevent choking if the person vomits. Loosen the clothing around their neck and check the mouth and back of the throat to see that nothing obstructs breathing. Don’t leave the person alone. Remember to act quickly. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal.

Drinking responsibly and keeping these tips in mind can help keep you, your friends and loved ones safe. With all that this region has to offer at this time of year, we have a lot of reasons to celebrate. Let’s make sure we’re smart when we do.

Teresa S. Dolan, M.D., is a board certified emergency medicine physician employed by Centre Emergency Medical Associates. She is a credentialed physician at Mount Nittany Medical Center in the Emergency Department.