When Drinking Turns Deadly

By: Philip Stewart
By: Philip Stewart

March 24, 2006

One week after a college student died from alcohol poisoning at UVA, here is a closer look at alcohol poisoning with one of the top toxicologists in the state.

Many can relate to going out and having a drink, or perhaps even having a few too many drinks. On Friday, Dr. Chris Holstege, the Medical Director at the Blue Ridge Poison Center, explained what happens to a person when they cross the line from intoxication to alcohol poisoning.

"[Examples include things like] 'I'm so intoxicated now that my center--my respiratory centers can't even stimulate me to breath,' or it's 'I have stuff that got into my lungs and I cant clear it,'" said Dr. Holstege. It's a scene he's has seen many times with alcohol poisoning. Often a person doesn't know how much alcohol is in a drink, or they did know and simply had far too much. But, Holstege said, the line between intoxication and death can be blurry.

"There's factors that come into play such as, 'did I eat food?' and whatnot. But usually alcohol is absorbed very quickly," he said.

Holstege also explained that height, weight and gender also factor in.

Sometimes it's on college campuses where students simply don't know their limits.

"It's going to be a draw for other youths to come," said Holstege. "Kids from out in the country are going to come out to Charlottesville for the football game. They want to go party with the college students. That possibility certainly exists."

1,400 college students die each year from alcohol poisoning, and those cases tend to get most of the attention. But it's a problem not limited to college campuses.

"Are all the people that come in with alcohol poisoning on the weekends college students? No. I'd say actually, it's the opposite," said Holstege. "Many of our alcoholics who come in are not college students. There's a lot of partiers out there from all different subsets of the population."

That's why, at any age, it's important to know what you're drinking and how to space the drinks out over time.

"Is it okay to go out and have a dark ale with your friends? Absolutely. But to have five dark ales in an hour's time period? No. That's a problem," he said.

All of those home remedies, like coffee and cool air, that are supposed to sober you up, the doctor says those are myths.

"if someone is profoundly inebriated, [get] them to stop [drinking]. And if your worried about them, bring them to the hospital to be evaluated to make sure that they don't run into problems later on down the road," said Holstege

UVA recently released pocket-sized cards for men and women that help calculate blood alcohol concentration based on weight and the amount of alcohol consumed. Both cards can be downloaded from www.healthsystem.virginia.edu.

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