Throughout history, alcohol has been used as a sterilizing agent, anesthetic, industrial fuel and household cleaner, in addition to being consumed for over 5,000 years by people looking to get hammered.
Ethanol is the technical term for the active ingredient found in numerous alcoholic drinks. All wines, beers and liquors contain ethanol, which is responsible for the drink’s effects on the body and mind. Ethanol is also a poison. While the body can process it in small quantities, there is a limit at which the body becomes dangerously intoxicated. Going beyond this limit can lead to a condition known as alcohol poisoning, a general term for the state in which someone may become unconscious and even die from ingesting ethanol.
Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition requiring immediate attention, but it is relatively rare compared to other injuries and deaths associated with alcohol.
Chris Flynn, director of emergency services at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, said that because alcohol affects the nervous system and brain, most people get hurt by not thinking clearly.
“Alcohol usually kills by lowering inhibitions,” Flynn said. “So physical injury is the most common way booze hurts.”
Flynn said that alcohol-related injuries often result from getting into fights, drinking and driving, and falling from heights. In most cases these injuries are quite serious, and far longer lasting than the effects of the alcohol itself. About 50 students per month in Santa Barbara County are admitted to the downtown and Goleta Valley Cottage Hospitals for alcohol-related injuries. In contrast, about 12 students per month are admitted for alcohol poisoning.
“We see two phases of admission,” Flynn said. “We see the acutely intoxicated students and then we see the fallouts from the next day.”
While it is possible to consume enough alcohol to cause death, it is not very common, Flynn said. Consuming dangerous levels of alcohol can be also be avoided by simply drinking more slowly. This allows the body to show signs it has had enough.
Erik Raney, sergeant at the Santa Barbara Sheriff Coroner’s Bureau, said that there have been six deaths this year in the county specifically due to alcohol intoxication, not including alcohol-related deaths. Out of these six, none have occurred in Isla Vista. Raney said this is mainly because I.V. houses only a small portion of the whole county’s residents.
Of the people that die before getting to a hospital, the cause of death is usually due to the inability of people to care for themselves, Raney said.
“It’s very rare that such a high level of alcohol will cause death,” Raney said. “It’s often asphyxia related to [inhaling] vomit.”
A common piece of advice is to turn someone on his or her side when they have passed out from alcohol. This allows them to vomit without choking themselves.
“I’ve seen cases where they were sleeping on the couch, then when the party’s over and they’re vacuuming up the peanuts, they notice the person is dead,” Raney said.
Alcohol poisoning is a somewhat general term that refers to the condition in which someone has ingested a toxic amount of alcohol. This amount is different for every person, and there is no absolute criterion one has to meet to be ‘poisoned,’ Raney said.
“Alcohol poisoning is kind of a euphemistic term for an alcohol overdose,” Raney said. “I don’t think there is a definite level between being heavily intoxicated and poisoning. If they pass out and cannot be aroused, that’s when to get medical attention.”
Other signs of alcohol poisoning include slow irregular breathing, cold clammy skin and vomiting while passed out.
Part of the reason that alcohol is able to poison the body is because it is absorbed quickly and eliminated slowly. This allows alcohol to build up in the bloodstream, leading to a blood alcohol content (BAC). BAC is usually expressed as a number that states how many grams of alcohol are present in 100 milliliters of blood. The average person has five liters of blood in their body, so a BAC of .1 would mean the person has a total of five grams of alcohol in their bloodstream.
Law enforcement agencies commonly use BAC to estimate how intoxicated someone is. In most states, it is illegal for someone of legal drinking age to drive a car with a BAC of .08 or higher.
Impairment is commonly encountered in people with a BAC of .08, but it takes a much higher level to cause symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
“If the [BAC] gets over .4, it causes a drop in blood pressure,” Flynn said. “Usually it is a frat party with peer pressure to drink a lot in a very short amount of time.”
The danger in this situation is that the body cannot handle such a large amount of alcohol so quickly.
Ian Kaminsky, director of alcohol and other drug programs at UCSB Student Health Services, said the body sometimes absorbs the alcohol so quickly that it will enter the blood before the person gets sick.
“If you can tolerate getting those [alcohol] shots down, that alcohol is in,” Kaminsky said. “Throwing up does not necessarily get rid of it.”
Raney said that alcohol poisons the body by affecting the central nervous system. As BAC rises higher and higher, the nervous system is suppressed more and more. This means that the nerve impulses are impeded, even those impulses going from the brain to the heart and lungs. If these nerves are affected enough by the alcohol, the lungs and heart will stop functioning, and the person will die of alcohol intoxication, Raney said.
Flynn said Cottage Hospital is planning to start a program to help people with drinking problems before they consume fatal amounts of alcohol.
“If you come to [Goleta Cottage Hospital] with an alcohol-related injury, you will be interviewed by a counselor,” Flynn said. “We will be implementing this program over the next year or two.”
Alcohol-induced blackouts are not the same as incidents of alcohol poisoning. The difference is that blackouts are characterized by periods of conscious behavior that later cannot be recalled, while poisoning usually mean being unconscious.
Kaminsky said that blackouts occur more often in people who have had a history of heavy drinking. Typically people with lower tolerances will pass out or become very ill before they experience a blackout.
“If you haven’t [drunk] that much before, you probably won’t tolerate enough alcohol to black out,” Kaminsky said. “Once you start blacking out, your body is trying to protect itself.”
Jackie Kurta, health educator at Student Health Services, said that during a blackout, short-term memories cannot be formed. She said that people often worry about what they did during a blackout, because while intoxicated, their inhibitions are lowered.
“I’ve seen a number of students, particularly ladies, worried about blacking out,” Kurta said. “And they are worried about correlations between blacking out and eating disorders.”
Kaminsky said that people who avoid eating because they are worried about their body’s image are especially prone to blackouts. This is because alcohol is absorbed much more quickly into the blood on an empty stomach.
Kaminsky said that 20 percent of the UCSB student population does not drink at all. And while not drinking at all will prevent blackouts, people who do choose to drink can avoid blackouts by drinking more slowly, drinking lots of water and eating, Kurta said.
“It’s the difference between alcohol education and alcohol abstinence,” Kaminsky said. “We are promoting alcohol education.”
“Know what you’re drinking,” Kaminsky said. “If you choose to drink, keep track.”