Drinking Myths that Can Kill You

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The number one fatal myth when it comes to alcohol is, “I’m OK to drive.”

Drinking is involved in about a third of traffic related fatalities. This comes from the Center for Disease Control and uses statistics from 2009. Deaths include not just the drinker themselves, but innocent passengers, including children.

A related myth is the idea that being under the legal limit is safe. The limit set in the United States (0.08% BAC) is a legal standard meant to make court proceedings easier. Because individuals vary in their baseline driving skills and ability to handle alcohol, the number can be much lower for some. Impaired driving can be charged with any blood alcohol level at all.

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol is a toxin. The reason we get drunk is because the amount of alcohol circulating in our system is more than we can detoxify. We drink it faster than our bodies can eliminate it. The myth in this case is, “She’ll be OK, just let her sleep it off.”

When someone passes out because they’ve consumed too much alcohol, it seems reasonable to assume, since they can’t drink while passed out, the situation is safe. Most fellow partiers would allow them to crash somewhere and ignore them. This is completely wrong!

Any alcohol in the stomach and lower intestines continues to be absorbed, even if someone has passed out. This lag means their blood alcohol level can continue to rise for some time after they has stopped drinking. It is also a risk in binge drinking where large quantities are consumed before the full effects are felt.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of alcohol poisoning include: altered breathing, heart rate, gag reflex and potentially lead to coma and death.

Death by Aspiration

A related myth to the “sleep it off” is that people who are passed out from drinking don’t require supervison. Since the gag reflex is suppressed, and since the body’s reaction to toxins is to vomit, the combination can lead to death. This happens when the victim is positioned with their face upward. When they vomit, the stomach contents go into the mouth and are then breathed into the lungs, causing a chemical pneumonia and possibly death from blocking the airways.

The remedy starts with placing an intoxicated person on their side, rather than their back. But this still doesn’t mean they do not need to be watched.

Larger People Can Drink More

This is a myth in that while it is generally true, it is not universally true. The ability to process alcohol depends on several factors. The most important is the rate at which alcohol is consumed. Drinking a higher proof product (or more of a lower proof) in a shorter time can overwhelm anyone’s ability to metabolize the alcohol.

The next most important factor is the liver’s ability to convert the alcohol into safe byproducts. This varies depending on genetic predisposition. Some ethnicities have less of an ability to process alcohol for this reason. But enzymes also vary by person within a race and can be affected by nutritional status or other medications.

The percentage of fat to muscle mass also makes a difference. Alcohol is preferentially distributed in non-fatty tissues. This is one reason why women (who generally have a higher percentage of body fat) are not able to drink as much as men for the same body weight.

Alcoholics Can Drink More than Non-Alcoholics

While it is true that alcohol addiction usually leads to higher consumption, the ability to drink more without getting drunk only goes so far. The liver responds to repeated exposure to alcohol by enlarging. This gives more cells with more enzymes to detoxify alcohol. But the increased exposure also damages the liver. At some point, the liver damage overwhelms any increase in the ability to process alcohol. At the latter stages of cirrhosis, alcoholics can get drunk, or even die from much smaller amounts of alcohol.

And just like other people who vary in their ability to handle alcohol, alcoholics also come in different shapes, sizes and genetic dispositions.

Stimulants Cure or Prevent Getting Drunk

This myth comes in two flavors. The first is that coffee or other stimulants (including “walking it off” or a cold shower) can sober someone up more quickly. This is false. Detoxifying alcohol consumed is dependent on body metabolism only. In turn, metabolism is dependent on time. Other than replacing the body’s blood volume with a transfusion, or some other radical process, there is no way to appreciably shorten the time needed.

The second version may actually be more dangerous. It’s the idea that taking amphetamines or other stimulants prevents someone from getting drunk. What it does is to delay passing out. The stimulant keeps the person awake and allows them to drink longer. The danger comes when toxic levels are reached because of continued consumption – past the point where someone would pass out and stop drinking.

At some point, the body simply gives out and “crashes.” How hard the crash is, and the situation someone is in when it happens determines the danger. Normally safe activities like swimming can suddenly turn deadly.

Photo by John Nyboer

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