Skip to main content UVA Health logo of UVA Health
Healthy Balance

Preventing Alcohol Poisoning: Advice for Teens, College Students and Parents

coordination and balance issues are an alcohol poisoning symptom
Alcohol poisoning symptoms include balance and coordination issues.

It seems like every few months, we see another heartbreaking news story about alcohol poisoning. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year more than 4,300 underage youth die after excessive drinking.

It’s prom, senior party and graduation season, and soon teens will be heading off to college. Learning about alcohol poisoning symptoms and how to intervene can help prevent more of these tragic deaths.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

When you swallow alcohol, it gets absorbed into your blood and distributed throughout the entire body rapidly. Alcohol acts as a mood-altering substance, a central nervous system depressant and an irritant to the stomach. When people consume large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, they increase the risk of an overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning symptoms may include:

  • Slowed reaction time
  • Mental confusion
  • Unsteady balance and poor coordination
  • Sleepiness
  • Unconsciousness, also known as “passing out”
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Vomiting
  • Choking
  • Seizures, coma and death

Even small amounts of alcohol can lead to poor judgment and reckless behavior, putting you at a greater risk of crime or assault.

Possible Alcohol Poisoning?

Not sure if you need medical help? Call the Blue Ridge Poison Center 24/7 for free and confidential advice: 1.800.222.1222.

Helping a Drunk Person

Plenty of home remedies promise to sober up an intoxicated person, such as:

  • Cold showers
  • Caffeine
  • Exercise
  • A big meal
  • Drinking lots of water
  • Making the intoxicated person vomit

In fact, these “remedies” will not sober a person up faster, and some of them may cause even more harm.

Instead, follow these tips to keep your friends safe:

  • Do your best to stop them from consuming any more alcohol.
  • Help them get them safely home. Do not let them drive.
  • If they go to sleep, place them on their side, not their back, which will help keep their airway open if they start vomiting.

Dangerously Drunk: When to Call 911

Never leave an intoxicated person alone to “sleep it off.” A person’s blood alcohol content may continue to rise after they’ve stopped drinking, and leading to possible choking, coma, respiratory arrest, and death. The Gordie Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention at UVA lists these four signs (PUBS) that a person’s life may be in jeopardy:

  • Puking while passed out
  • Unresponsive to stimulation (pinch or shaking)
  • Breathing (slow, shallow or no breathing)
  • Skin (blue, cold or clammy)

If you see any one of the “PUBS” signs, call 911 right away. Don’t worry that a victim may become angry or embarrassed or that someone may get into trouble. You could save a life.

Medical Amnesty

Virginia is one of 35 states which have some form of a “good samaritan” or medical amnesty law. These laws protect victims and witnesses who act in good faith to seek medical assistance when they believe an overdose to drugs or alcohol is occurring.

Alcohol Abuse Prevention: Learn More

Additionally, some schools have adopted their own versions of a medical amnesty policy, promising to remove or lessen the disciplinary action against any student who seeks help — or needs help — with an alcohol or drug overdose. By law, hospitals must protect the privacy of all patients and are not allowed to report back to a school about any student’s visit to the emergency room or any other healthcare service.

“If there’s a concern about one of their friends being openly drunk and not responsive, they should call EMS,” says Chris Holstege, MD, co-medical director of UVA’s Blue Ridge Poison Center and executive director of UVA Student Health. “No one will know except for them. There’s a misconception that the hospital is going to tell somebody, but that’s not true.”

UVA Police Department chief Michael Gibson adds, “When someone calls 911 because of a concern for their health or someone else’s, getting the person the medical care that they need will always be our top priority.”

Preventing Alcohol Poisoning

Make smart, responsible and legal drinking decisions:

  • Alternate alcoholic beverages with non‐alcoholic beverages.
  • Eat before and while consuming alcohol to slow its absorption into your body.
  • Know what you’re drinking, and don’t accept drinks from strangers. Some mixed drinks have more than one serving of alcohol in them.
  • Use designated drivers who stay sober.

Rapid drinking behavior such as chugging, doing shots or using a beer bong is extremely dangerous.

Teens and Drinking: What Can Parents Do?

Studies show that parents do have real influence over their children’s drinking decisions. The Partnership for Drug‐free Kids has a wealth of information for parents on their website, including tips for talking to your teen, signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse and resources for help if you suspect your teen has a problem.

They suggest that parents:

  • Model appropriate and responsible drinking behavior. Your kids learn from watching your habits!
  • Be clear with your expectations and rules about drinking.
  • Listen openly and objectively to your teen about their thoughts and feelings about drinking.
  • Discuss the negative effects of alcohol and what that means in terms of mental and physical health, safety and making good decisions.
  • Is your child socializing at someone else’s home? Call the parents in advance to verify the occasion and location and that there will be supervision. If the activity seems inappropriate, express concern and keep your child home.
  • Assure your child that he or she can call you to be picked up whenever needed.
  •  Make sure your teen knows what alcohol poisoning looks like (PUBS), and tell them they should always find an adult or call 911 if they suspect someone is in danger.

Reply & View Comments Search Submit

Subscribe for Updates

Get stories & health tips every week