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Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1:12 p.m.

Beyond the buzz, the effects of alcohol poisoning

Part 2 in a special Maine Campus report


P1. Defining Alcohol poisoning.

Wednesday (online Monday):

P2. Examining the effects.

Friday (online Wednesday):

P3. Legal issues surrounding alcohol.

Already this semester the University Volunteer Ambulance Corps has responded to six alcohol-related calls. Last fall, UVAC had a total of 23 alcohol-related calls, said Travis Hawksley, the University Ambulance Administrative Coordinator.

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a toxic level of alcohol in a person’s system begins to impair bodily functions.

“When alcohol bonds with water in the brain it begins shutting off brain functions,” said Dr. Robert Dana, substance abuse coordinator and dean of Students and Community Life. “Once it reaches vital brain functions the result is death.”

As many University of Maine students have experienced, alcohol irritates the stomach, causing nausea and vomiting, Hawksley said.

“The human body is equipped to protect itself from alcohol poisoning,” Dana said. “When alcohol is taken quickly, the vomit reflex center is activated. But when alcohol is drank more slowly it depresses the vomit reflex center and then you can go on to drink to lethal doses.”

One problem with vomiting is that it depletes fluid volumes in the patient’s body, Hawksley said. UVAC remedies this problem by administering intravenous fluids. A second problem occurs when people who are having difficulty maintaining consciousness cannot clear their own airway. Victims then runs the risk of choking on their own vomit. Both problems can occur with a very little alcohol in a person’s system, Hawksley said.

Another fluid depletion problem occurs because of the excessive need to urinate that comes with drinking alcohol.

Mark Jackson, director of student health and services at Cutler Health Center, said excessive urination causes dehydration. Dehydration consequently concentrates the alcohol in a person’s body.

“There’s also potential damage to the body,” Jackson said. “Medications you’re taking might react with alcohol. You also injure your brain cells; at high levels [of intoxication] you’re sort of pickling your brain and run the potential of death.”

Another side effect of drinking is what UVAC calls an alcohol blackout: when a person becomes unconscious from consumption.

“Passing out is a function of your brain turning you off,” Dana said. “But your blood alcohol level can still go up because there’s still alcohol in your gut that has to be processed, but generally your body can deal with it. But if you override it, say by doing shots and then passing out, there’s too much to process and you overdose.”

Alcohol is a depressant and therefore slows cardiovascular functions. Extreme alcohol poisoning can cause breathing to slow to where bodily functions can no longer be maintained, according to a UVAC report.

“The overdose effect is when you stop breathing and your brain becomes damaged,” Dana said. “Basically, you don’t wake up and are in a coma. The problem is that people see others kind of get in trouble and turn out okay. But alcohol can cause horrific problems, they need to know how it will affect them and how to use it safely.”

UVAC has several ways they deal with alcohol poisoning, Hawksley said. If the patient is having trouble or has stopped breathing, UVAC can use an endotracheal tube to administer oxygen and assist with breathing. The last measure UVAC takes is the administration of activation charcoal. The charcoal absorbs the alcohol that has not yet been absorbed into the blood stream.

“After getting intoxicated to that point, for the next five years the person suffers increased incidents of injuries and more visits to the [emergency room],” Jackson said. “If you live for the weekend then that’s a serious problem. Binge drinking in general is an alcohol-related problem.”