March 5, 2003
Binge drinking can cause more than a hangover, it can kill
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—As Spring Break approaches, safety advocates have a message for those who will leave next week for the land of booze cruises, rum showers and all-u-can-drink party passes.
Remember that it’s also Brain Injury Awareness Week and act accordingly, says Lauren Fairburn, coordinator for Think First for Teens, Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s statewide injury prevention program for teens.
“It’s easy to overindulge when you go to places like Cancun, where the drinking age is 18 and free liquor flows,” she said. “But young people need to realize the ramifications of serious binge drinking. The worst case scenario isn’t waking up with a killer hangover. It’s not waking up at all.”
Health professionals say you’re in danger of murder-by-margarita if you ingest a toxic level of alcohol and it begins affecting areas of the brain that control breathing and heart rate.
“Alcohol essentially acts as a central nervous system depressant,” said Dr. Samuel T. Gontkovksy, a clinical neuropsychologist at Methodist Rehab.
In small doses, it can cause lowered inhibitions and euphoria – the kind of feelings that might prompt entry in a beachfront, wet T-shirt contest. But ingesting large quantities in a short period of time – such as during a spring break chugging contest -- can cause more worrisome reactions.
“Initially you might be mentally confused or have hallucinations,” Gontkovsky said. “As blood alcohol levels approach toxic levels, loss of consciousness and coma are possible. Extreme intoxication influences the brain structures that control respiration and heart rate and may cause permanent damage as a result of a decreased supply of oxygen to the brain.”
When the brain goes too long without oxygen, the drinker dies of acute alcohol poisoning.
A number of factors influence a person’s response to alcohol, from how much they’ve eaten to how often they belly up to a bar. “In general, novice drinkers are at greater risk to experience toxicity than someone who frequently ingests large amounts of alcohol and builds up a tolerance to it over time,” Gontkovsky said.
And that’s why spring break revelers may be at particular risk for alcohol poisoning. Many are rookie drinkers who are experimenting in a setting that features free-flowing booze and a don’t-worry-be-crazy mentality.
“The tour agents make it sound like you can do anything you want if you’re 18,” said Will Boatner, 22, a nursing student at Holmes Community College in Ridgeland. “When I was a senior, half of my class chose to go to Cancun because you could pay $90 for a party pass and get free drinks at any bar on the main strip. A couple got arrested – one for indecent exposure and one for public drunkenness.”
A USA Today article chronicling incidents during Spring Break 2002 featured a report from the U.S. Consulate in Merida, Mexico, whose territory includes Cancun. According to the consulate, U.S. students accounted for two deaths, 360 arrests, one rape and four injuries that required medical evacuation.
While spring break research is rare, one study conducted by University of Wisconsin-Stout researchers found that the average male had 18 alcoholic drinks per day, and the average female had 10 drinks per day during spring break festivities in Panama City, Florida. Half of all males, and 40 percent of females drank to the point of vomiting or passing out at least once.
“I’ve known people who will drink themselves out cold,” said Boatner. And he believes that might be due to the notion that if you don’t drive while you’re drunk, it’s safe to get sloshed. “My generation has been taught that drunk driving kills. But I don’t think they’ve been told enough that alcohol poisoning can kill you, too,” Boatner said.
Adam Wilkerson of Ocean Springs certainly had no clue at age 15 when he began playing the drinking game King of the Table with a group of friends.
Wilkerson said the game works like this: You ante up some money, line up some shots and start gulping ‘em down. “The last one standing wins the pot,” he said. “If you spill a drink or puke, you’re out.”
In about 30 minutes, Wilkerson knocked back 64 shots or about a half gallon of whiskey. He won the pot, and very nearly lost his life. “I died twice, “ he said. “My heart stopped beating in the ambulance and in the emergency room.”
While the experience didn’t make him a teetotaler, “it made me realize how dumb it was,” said Wilkerson, 24, owner of Jerry’s Pawn in Gautier. “I drink responsibly now. A lot of times I’m the DD (designated driver).”
Fairburn said the idea of a designated driver has been effective, and spring break might be a good time to create the role of designated party monitor, too.
“People die sometimes because they pass out in a corner or go off by themselves and everyone assumes they’re just sleeping it off. But if someone had checked on them, they might have made it to the hospital in time,” Fairburn said.
Wilkerson said he’s alive today because a friend intervened. “I was told I was passed out in a ditch, and my friend called an ambulance when they couldn’t wake me up. What happened to me is I was choking on my own vomit.”
Health professionals say such vomiting is not uncommon, and is another reason why it’s critical to monitor people who have been binge drinking.
To help young people recognize when a friend might be suffering from alcohol poisoning, Students Against Destructive Decisions provides a list of symptoms.
- The person is known to have consumed large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time.
- Person is unconscious and cannot be awakened.
- Person has cold, clammy or unusually pale or bluish skin.
- Person is breathing slowly or irregularly – usually this means less than eight times a minute or ten seconds or more between any two breaths.
- Person vomits while passed out and does not wake up during or after.
As for what to do, SADD recommends trusting your gut. “Don’t hesitate or worry about what the person will think when he or she sobers up,” says the literature. “If you think he or she has suffered alcohol poisoning, then do something.”
For more information:
Here's to a Safe Spring Break | The Clarion-Ledger