Every fall, after students return to high school and college, there are tragic news stories about those who die of alcohol poisoning. These tragedies could often be averted if teens were better prepared to call for help. When we speak with teens in our classroom prevention workshops, they often express concern about what to do at parties when peers are highly intoxicated. Yet while they express concerns about their friends, they also express fears that if they call adults for help they will get in trouble, or if they call 911 for an ambulance they will get arrested. Another common worry is that the intoxicated friend will be mad at them the next day for “getting them in trouble.” These fears can be overwhelming and make it difficult for teens to reach out for help in a time of crisis. It is vital that caring adults convey to young people a clear message: alcohol poisoning is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention; and while underage drinking is not condoned, if they or someone they are with is in need of medical attention because of underage drinking, they should call 911 and involve adults without the fear of punishment.
Alcohol poisoning is when the quantity of alcohol in the blood is so high that it threatens respiration. Teens are at a much higher risk of alcohol poisoning than adults because they metabolize alcohol less efficiently. Teens get drunker faster and stay drunker longer on less alcohol. Binge drinking (defined as 4-5 drinks in a single sitting) and playing drinking games, both common among teens, cause Blood Alcohol Content to rise to dangerous levels in a short amount of time. The liver has no time to catch up, which creates a backlog of alcohol in the blood stream. It is also important to note that drinking after the use of any kind of drug, prescribed or illicit, can increase the risks of alcohol poisoning.
Everyone should be aware of warning signs that indicate someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning.1 The first symptom of alcohol poisoning is usually vomiting. This is the body’s attempt to protect itself by preventing any alcohol that remains in the stomach from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Additional signs are as follows:
- Unable to stand up or remain standing without assistance.
- Not responsive to talking or shouting.
- Clammy or cool skin, or bluish to purplish skin that appears very flushed.
- Not responsive to any physical contact, i.e., shaking, poking, pinching.
- Passed out, especially if unresponsive to any attempt to wake.
- Vomiting while passed out and not waking up is an additional red flag.
- Slow irregular breathing, irregular pulse or a pulse rate slower than 40 beats per minute.
- We stress to teens that these symptoms should not be taken lightly. The only solution to alcohol poisoning is to call 911 and remain with the person in need until EMS has arrived. Furthermore, teens should not wait until someone is passed out and is unresponsive – it could be too late.
Teens often ask whether there will be any legal repercussions if they call 911. In our experience, there has never been a case of an underage drinking arrest under these circumstances. We also point out that in a medical emergency, saving someone’s life trumps any legal action that may be taken, and that any potential legal consequences could be much worse if the alcohol poisoning ultimately resulted in death.
Often the next concern is, “But what about my parents? I’ll get in so much trouble!” This is where parent involvement in prevention is so important. We, as Freedom Institute counselors, encourage parents to communicate with their children, especially as they enter middle and upper school about their expectations regarding alcohol and drug use, and also about their expectations regarding calling for help. For example: “I expect you not to drink. But, I always want you to call me if you are in a risky situation. If you are in circumstances involving alcohol and someone needs help, you should call 911, me or any other trusted adult. I would much rather you call for help than worry about being punished by me. There may indeed be a consequence if you personally have made some unhealthy choices, but my first concern is your safety. In the end, my response to the situation will be much tougher if you don’t call for help when it is needed.” We also recommend that parents review warning signs of alcohol poisoning with their teens.
Time and time again, teens have shared with Independent School Program counselors their struggles to act responsibly in a time of crisis. As caring adults, it is imperative to send to our teens a clear message that promotes healthy behavior, prepares them to respond appropriately in a dangerous situation, and simultaneously conveys support.