By Cary Quashen, C.A.S.
It happened again, someone came to a Tuesday evening ACTION Parent & Teen Support meeting in tears. “My son is drinking,” says the mom. “The Sheriff called me from the hospital emergency room. Your son is drunk, drunk to the point he has poisoned his body. The doctors tell me he could die, please get here quick.”
A dad recalled the story of how he was contacted by his son’s friend. They had taken a walk to the local park, one of our local parks. On the way, they stopped at a liquor store who sold the two minors each a fifth of vodka. Within 15 minutes, one of the minors, the man’s son, drank the fifth and almost died. His son’s friend called the Sheriff Department, an ambulance, and then dad. Dad and mom showed up at the same time the Sheriff and the ambulance did. They found their son passed out on the street, vomiting, lying in his own puke and close to no heartbeat.
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She cried as she shared her story and when asked, “what the tears were about?” she said “I party too much. I started drinking, trying to be cool, one of the crowd. I just wanted to fit in. Be a part of the high school thing. However, before I know it, I would consume five to six drinks in an hour. One evening I was even raped, too drunk to care for myself or about myself, and ward off the unwanted sexual advances.”
One mom had not heard from her son in hours. It was past curfew and he was long overdue home. Frightened and concerned she showed up at the home where the party was, only to find her son in a cold running shower, drunk, passed out, in hypothermic shock, turning blue and having seizures. His friends heard mom come though the door and ran out the back. He almost died.
These stories are real, stories local Santa Clarita families and teens tell. I have heard hundreds and hundreds of them as a high-risk teen counselor in every community I have ever worked in. Many think teen drinking is a right of passage. Many think it is just a phase their teen will grow out of as they get older. However, alcohol poisoning is real and it can kill. As a high-risk teen counselor, I have attended my share of teen funerals to last all of you a lifetime. While some of those teens died at the hands of gang violence, drug overdoses, car crashes involving alcohol and drunk driving, many died from alcohol poisoning.
So what is alcohol poisoning? It is overdosing on alcohol (AOD), no different than any other drug overdose, drug overdoses kill.
It’s estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 deaths occur each year from alcohol overdosing, drinking too much alcohol too fast. Families learn, in the most difficult way, that alcohol can be a lethal drug.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to AOD. Most who suffer from AOD are first-time drinkers and had never been drunk before. Many are put to bed, by friends or their own parents, to “sleep it off,” only to be found dead in the morning. Their friends or parents didn’t know that if a person drinks too much alcohol quickly before falling asleep, the alcohol will shut down breathing and heart functions and kill a person within a few hours.
Until recently there has been a lack of public information about AOD. The following information literally saves lives. It could save a friend or maybe even you.
Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing, the heartbeat, and the gag reflex (prevents choking). A fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop these functions. After the victim stops drinking, the heart keeps beating, and alcohol in the stomach continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. As a result victims choke on their own vomit; breathing slows and becomes irregular or stops; one’s heart beats irregularly or stops; low body temperature (hypothermia) lead’s to cardiac arrest; hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures and AOD can lead to irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking (which often happens on a bet or a dare) is especially dangerous because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before becoming unconscious.
Critical signs of alcohol poisoning include mental confusion, a stupor, coma, or person who cannot be roused; no response to pinching the skin, vomiting while sleeping; seizures slow breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute); irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths); and hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness.
Many people try different methods to reverse the effects of alcohol, to sober someone up. Most of these methods are myths, and they don’t work.
Some common myths are drinking black coffee; taking a cold bath or shower; sleeping it off; or walking it off.
Think you know everything about alcohol? Here are some common myths debunked.
MYTH: Everyone drinks.
TRUTH: Not true. Although 31% of teens said they've drank alcohol in the past month that still leaves 69% who did not! If you choose not to drink, you're definitely not alone.
MYTH: Alcohol gives you energy.
TRUTH: This statement is false. Alcohol is a depressant, and can actually make you sleepy. It slows down your motor skills which control the way you think, speak, move and react.
MYTH: Beer before liquor, never been sicker - liquor before beer, you're in the clear.
TRUTH: This is an old urban legend used to explain why people get sick when they drink - but it's just not true. Your blood alcohol content (also known as BAC, the percentage of alcohol in your blood) is what determines how drunk you are. It doesn't matter what type of alcohol you chose to consume - a drink is a drink, and too much of any combination can make you sick.
MYTH: I can sober up quickly if I need to.
TRUTH: If you think that taking a shower, drinking 10 cups of coffee or eating a loaf of bread will help you sober up - think again. The only thing your body needs is time — depending on your weight, it takes about three hours to eliminate every two drink you've had that night.
MYTH: Driving with someone who drank can be safe, because they drive extra carefully so they don't get pulled over.
TRUTH: YIKES! Drinking and driving is extremely dangerous. Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking and about 1,900 of these deaths are from motor vehicle crashes(NIAAA). In 2002, alcohol was involved in 41% of all fatal crashes (NIDA). A person might think he's in control, but alcohol slows down reaction time which makes driving a car one of the worst decisions one can make — even if he's had only a little bit to drink.
MYTH: Everyone who gets drunk acts the same.
TRUTH: Nope. There are lots of factors that affect the body's reactions to alcohol, including weight, age, gender, body chemistry, genetics, amount of food and alcohol consumed — the list can go on. The way one person reacts can be vastly different from how another person reacts. You can't predict how alcohol will affect you.
MYTH: Alcohol makes sex better.
TRUTH: Wrong again. Alcohol can make people feel less uncomfortable in a social situation. But the reality is that alcohol can actually keep guys from getting or keeping an erection, and it can lower girls' sex drives, too. More importantly, alcohol can affect your decision-making ability: You might put yourself in a risky situation; you might think you're ready to have sex when you're not or you might forget to use a condom — which can result in pregnancy and/or contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
MYTH: If I drink too much, the worst thing that can happen is I get my stomach pumped.
TRUTH: No way. If alcohol is drunk excessively, it can lead to alcohol poisoning which can cause death. Also, drinking excessive alcohol can cause vomiting. When drunk and unconscious, a person may inhale fluids that have been vomited, resulting in death by asphyxiation. Long-term, heavy use of alcohol can lead to addiction (alcoholism), and can even cause a heart attack or stroke.
MYTH: Talk to me about drugs - that's a bigger issue than alcohol.
TRUTH: Both drugs and alcohol are serious problems among teens. Alcohol kills young people just like cocaine, heroin and other serious illegal drugs. Also, according to recent studies, nearly one-half (47%) of persons who began drinking before age 14 were alcohol dependent at some point in their lifetime.
MYTH: Alcohol isn't harmful to my body.
TRUTH: Again, this statement is wrong. Large amounts of alcohol can take its toll on your body, causing disturbed sleep, nausea, and vomiting as well as a dreaded hangover. Heavy drinking can inhibit the firing of nerve cells that control breathing, a condition known as respiratory depression — a condition that can be fatal.
MYTH: My friends will think I'm weird if I don't drink.
TRUTH: Friends are you friends no matter what - and they won't give up your friendship over something as silly as a beer. Also, keep in mind that most people are usually too focused on themselves to care what others are — or aren't — doing.
MYTH: My parents drink - so what's the big deal if I do?
TRUTH: Actually, it's scientifically proven to be a big deal. According to new research by A. Thomas McLellan, Ph.D. , teens who drink and take drugs may be at greater risk than previously thought. His research suggests that the brain is not fully formed until age 24. Using drugs and alcohol during this important time as your brain develops might have negative long-term effects on brain functions such as memory.
If you suspect that someone may have ingested a fatal dose of alcohol, help is required immediately. Call 911 and stay with the victim; keep the victim from choking on vomit; tell emergency medical technicians the symptoms; and if you know, how much alcohol the victim drank. Prompt action may save the life of a friend, or your own.
Bystanders (friends, parents, and strangers) have responsibilities. They should know the danger signals and don’t wait for all of the symptoms to be present; be aware that the person who has passed out could die; don’t try to guess the level of drunkenness and it is imperative one call 911 immediately.
Remember underage drinking is illegal and not a right of passage. Teach your teens the risk of drinking. Monitor who they are with and where they are going. Many teens report they take their first drink at home, either given to them at a family party or raiding the home liquor cabinet. If you have alcohol in your home please keep your cabinets locked.
Cary Quashen is a high-risk teen counselor and a certified addiction specialist. He is the president and founder of the ACTION Parent & Teen Support Programs and ACTION Family Counseling. The ACTION Parent & Teen Support Program meets every Tuesday at Canyon High School in the A building. Quashen may be reached by calling (661) 713-3006.