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A 'terrifying' experience
Instances of alcohol poisoning are of national concern and have local effects

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Date published: 10/17/2010

BY SARAH C. SMITH

WHEN Audrey Westmoreland arrived at a party her sophomore year at the University of Mary Washington, most of the guests had been drinking heavily already.

She noticed right away that one of her friends had had too much to drink. The 19-year-old girl was vomiting in the bathroom, and when friends brought her out to sit down, she became unresponsive.

Westmoreland said she and her roommate recognized that their friend was in trouble. Neither of them had been drinking, so they borrowed the host's car and drove their friend to the emergency room.

"I sat in the back with her, trying to make sure she was still breathing," Westmoreland said. "It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life."

Now a senior, Westmoreland still remembers the night vividly.

She said that once they got to the ER, her friend was given IV fluids to prevent dehydration. Her friend made a full recovery.

But not all cases of severe intoxication end well, said Debra McPhee, clinic and substance abuse coordinator for the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board.

In addition to hospital visits, alcohol abusers open themselves up to sexual assault, fights, theft and other risks, including drunken driving.

Having responsible friends around can help, but binge drinkers shouldn't count on others to be their safety net.

"My biggest concern is, who around them is going to care?" McPhee said. "How responsible are the other people around them to see that they need help?"

PASSING OUT, VOMITING

A headache and some queasiness are the least of the physical consequences for some people who overindulge in alcohol.

In 2008, there were an estimated 188,981 alcohol-related emergency department visits by patients ages 12 to 20, according to a Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN, national report.

Many of these cases were the result of binge drinking, or consuming more than four drinks on the same occasion.

Underage drinkers tend to drink more alcohol at a time than their legal counterparts, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Heath.

But they may not be aware of the potential health consequences, and may not know when a person crosses the line from intoxication to alcohol poisoning.

warning signs

A person suffering from alcohol poisoning shows it, exhibiting confusion and stupor that can progress into unconsciousness, according to the Mayo Clinic.


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Women have less of the alcohol-processing enzyme--alcohol dyhydrogenase--than men, making them more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. Yet between the ages of 12 and 20, boys and men are 1.4 times more likely than girls and women to need emergency care because of alcohol.

Other alcohol-related facts:

17.4 percent of 12- to 20-year-olds binge drank in the month preceding the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

People over 21 reported having 2.8 drinks on average, while those under the legal drinking age consumed 4.9.

-Sarah C. Smith