An overdose of alcohol that interferes with the body’s core functions is referred to as alcohol poisoning — a potentially fatal condition that results from ingesting an excessive quantity of alcohol in a short time.
“It’s essentially drinking enough alcohol that it affects how your brain functions, and how your heart functions, and how your body functions,” Sbardella explained.
The Free Press spoke with at least two sources, both of whom requested anonymity, who reported that a Melrose student experienced alcohol poisoning in May after becoming seriously ill around the time of the Melrose High School Junior Prom. The student was apparently rushed to Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, where the teenager recovered after receiving medical care.
Alcohol depresses the body’s nervous system, and people who have consumed an excess amount of alcohol in a relatively short period begin to lose control of functions like breathing and the gag reflex. In extreme cases, a person who has consumed an overdose of alcohol may suffocate while vomiting or slip into a coma.
Sbardella, the chairman of emergency services for Hallmark Health, said that many local teens who are treated for alcohol poisoning have also ingested a second drug, and it’s often the combination of the two that makes them sick. But for teens who are starting to experiment with alcohol, a condensed period of heavy drinking can be enough to overload the body.
“There’s no one number [of drinks that will induce alcohol poisoning], but it’s usually how rapidly someone is drinking,” Sbardella said. “A lot of people will binge drink, or they’ll do what’s called “pre-gaming” — they’ll drink as much as they can before they go someplace. It’s that large quantity that the body absorbs in a short period of time that creates that [alcohol poisoning] situation.”
Telltale symptoms of alcohol poisoning
Although the quantity of alcohol that will induce alcohol poisoning varies from person to person based on body composition and prior drinking experience, Sbardella said an alcohol overdose can be identified by symptoms like confusion, stupor, vomiting, slow or irregular breathing, and pale skin.
“It’s not one biological point,” Sbardella said. “It’s a constellation of symptoms, and when those symptoms come together, it’s like the perfect storm.”
Getting help from medical professionals is critical when someone has consumed an overdose of alcohol, Sbardella said, but for many teens, calling a parent or 911 for help can be daunting.
Inexperienced drinkers may ignore the signs of alcohol poisoning, or believe that an intoxicated friend just needs to “sleep it off.” But if someone is becoming ill, Sbardella said, the circumstances will only deteriorate, and, if handled quickly, a paramedic or doctor may be able to intervene.
“Sleeping it off is a lot different than not being able to handle what you drank,” Sbardella said.
Doctors and paramedics can provide critical assistance when someone is suffering an alcohol overdose, including inserting a breathing tube to keep airways open and pumping latent alcohol out of the stomach. Hospital workers can also replenish fluids and vitamins to help speed recovery.
Faced with the alternative — the possibility that a friend could be seriously injured by alcohol, or even die — Sbardella said teens should realize that the health risks of alcohol poisoning trump any concerns about disciplinary action.
“You’ve already made the decision to drink,” Sbardella said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is you’ve got to have some responsibility to your friends.”
‘ … important for kids to know that they can just call [for help] …’
Although she’s never been confronted with the possibility that a friend may have consumed an overdose of alcohol, Melrose High School Junior Anna Tramontozzi said she can understand why some classmates would be hesitant to call for help.
“I think there’s a line that a lot of kids can’t tell the difference between,” Tramontozzi said, referring to whether a friend who’s consumed alcohol is drunk or is experiencing alcohol poisoning.
A member of the Melrose Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, Tramontozzi said she’s received information about recognizing alcohol poisoning, and read about various drugs in her 9th- and 10th-grade wellness classes. Still, she’s heard stories of binge drinking, and classmates suffering the effects of an alcohol overdose, either at a party — or, later, at the hospital.
“I think that it’s important for kids to know that they can just call [for help],” Tramontozzi said, “and they should be able to just call.”
In a 2009 survey, 68 percent of Melrose teens reported having tried alcohol, and 14 percent of 7th and 8th graders reported drinking in the past 30 days. Kara Showers, Melrose’s substance abuse prevention coordinator, said that while the 2009 survey showed some improvement in the city’s drug prevention efforts, underage drinking remains a challenging problem.
“The good news is that the high school drinking trends are going down,” Showers said, “but there’s still much more work that has to be done here locally, and all over the nation, to reduce underage drinking.
Melrose Police Chief Mike Lyle said while the problem of youths suffering alcohol poisoning isn’t rampant in Melrose, he pointed to the disturbing discovery of a teenage girl who was passed out at the Mount Hood Golf Course a few years ago as an example of the ongoing concern caused by youth drinking. In the “age of the cell phone,” Lyle said, it’s “unthinkable” that someone whose friend was becoming sick wouldn’t call for help.
“These youngsters don’t realize what alcohol can do to them,” Lyle said. “That won’t be the first case or last case [of alcohol poisoning] we’ll ever have.”
Showers said an important suggestion for parents is to make sure all alcohol is stored in a secure place, out of the reach of children and teens. However, maintaining an open dialogue about alcohol and drugs is the most effective way to prevent children from drinking, she said.
“The number one thing parents need to understand,” Showers said, “is that what they say, and how often they have conversations with their kids about drinking alcohol, and other risky behaviors —really has a huge impact.”
For more information, contact the Melrose Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition at 781-979-4128.