The signs of alcohol poisoning, according to the Student Health Services Wellness Resource Center at Kansas University, are:
• Unconscious or passed out and cannot be awakened. • Vomiting. • Seizures. • Irregular, slow breathing. Eight breaths or less per minute. • Cold, clammy, pale or bluish skin.
If your friend is experiencing any of these symptoms while intoxicated, call 911. Then, stay with the friend until help arrives.
• Leave your friend alone. • Let your friend “sleep it off.” • Allow your friend to drive. • Give your friend food, liquid or medication. • Encourage your friend to walk, run or exercise. • Put your friend in a cold shower.
St. Patrick’s Day, March Madness and spring break could give Lawrence residents an excuse to drink more than usual during the next week.
Green beer will be flowing, and Hawk bombs — a mixture of vodka, Red Bull and cranberry juice — will be downed.
But health professionals urge common sense. Drinking too much can lead to a trip to the emergency room, or even death. Jason Wren, 19, of Lawrence, was found dead Sunday after a night of reportedly drinking margaritas, beer and whiskey. An official cause of death is pending toxicology results.
Death from accidental alcohol poisoning is rare. Between 2000 and 2007, 52 Kansans died of such a cause, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. More than half of the victims were between the ages of 35 and 54. Five were between the ages of 25 and 34, and fewer than five were between the ages of 15 and 24.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s emergency room treats more than 400 alcohol-related cases per year. That number is tripled when alcohol is considered the secondary cause of the ER trip. For example, someone fell and hit his head as a result of drinking.
“It’s a huge problem, and we are spending millions of dollars a year just treating the direct causes of alcohol in our emergency room in Lawrence,” said John Drees, LMH community education specialist.
He said 25 percent of the emergency room patients are people between the ages of 18 and 22. About once a week, doctors find patients who were left at the ER doorstep.
Dr. Chris Jenson, an emergency room doctor, said such action only hurts the patient because doctors don’t have information: Where has the person been? How much have they drunk? What have they consumed?
“We are not here to get you or bust you. We are here to save lives,” Jenson said.
Unfortunately, he said LMH treats alcohol-related cases every day, but they peak on the weekends and around holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
“In our society, alcohol is heavily advertised. It is a big part of culture. There’s the whole tailgating scene. But, the extreme levels are dangerous — very dangerous,” Drees said. “What people don’t realize is that $10 or $12 is all it would take to buy enough alcohol to provide a lethal dose for some people.”
How much is too much?
Everybody handles alcohol differently. How much alcohol might lead to an overdose depends on a number of factors, including age, weight, gender, experience with alcohol, metabolism, prescription medicine and health conditions.
“If we give an inexperienced 21-year-old 21 shots on her 21st birthday — which they actually do — some of them might do OK, some of them are going to pass out and a select few are going to die,” Drees said. “That’s why they have to be so careful.”
Often, drinking starts out as fun.
“Alcohol is a depressant on many levels. Many people initially get excited when they are drunk and that’s because it impairs your inhibition,” Jenson said. “As a result, you do things you normally wouldn’t do and sometimes you don’t make the best decisions.”
In the end, alcohol slows down your neurological system and impairs your breathing, slows down your metabolism and can even lower your body’s core temperature.
“So, there’s a lot of bad things that happen at once,” Jenson said. “Depending on the amount of alcohol you’ve ingested, you may experience some to all of those things.”
He said if people are alert, can walk and talk properly and are just experiencing nausea and vomiting, they easily could be helped without a trip to the ER. If they are “sleeping off” a hangover or have “passed out,” they need to be checked every 10 to 15 minutes initially until they are feeling better. They should be easy to be awakened and able to carry a conversation.
If not, seek medical help immediately.
“That’s when it becomes dangerous, and there can be bad outcomes,” Jenson said.
Jen Brinkerhoff, director of prevention at DCCCA, which provides substance abuse services in Douglas County, encourages parents to talk to their children about the dangers of alcohol.
“You need to start the conversation in grade school before it’s even a factor because we know the first time a kid uses alcohol in Kansas is around age 13 or so,” she said. “Kids think they are invincible because they don’t have that ability to really think that could happen.”
According to a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control, 19 percent of Kansas ninth-graders reported having five or more drinks of alcohol within a couple of hours at least once. Twenty-five percent of high school seniors said they drove a vehicle after drinking alcohol.
In 2007, drunken driving crashes claimed 118 lives in Kansas and accounted for 5 percent of all crashes.
According to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, 24 percent of offenders were suspected of using alcohol at the time of rape during the past five years in Lawrence.
Drees said drinking isn’t going to end. He just hopes this recent death serves as a wake-up call for others.
“It’s really gotten out of hand, and there’s a lot of suffering. They are trying to have fun, yet there’s a lot of suffering going on. It is changing lives, and it is affecting some people permanently.”