At a recent after-prom party in Dallas, an 18-year-old died from apparent alcohol poisoning. This type of tragedy is entirely too common. It’s important to think ahead about what you might do if a friend (or even a stranger) gets so drunk that you need to make the decision to call for help. Know the warning signs that someone is at risk and needs serious medical attention beyond having someone “hold their hair back.”
These are the general guidelines offered by health professionals. Firstly, make sure the person doesn’t drink any more alcohol, and try to prevent him or her from wandering off alone. Impaired judgment can lead someone to get hurt, engage in risky sexual or violent behavior, or just plain embarrass him or herself-- with permanent documentation thanks to camera phones and Facebook. Also, make sure he or she does not get behind the wheel of a car!
A person doesn’t necessarily need to be throwing up or passed out to need medical attention. Worrisome signs to look out for include:
- Slurred speech
- Stumbling while walking or trouble maintaining balance without help
- Trouble making eye contact
- Feeling excessively cold or warm
- Shortness of breath
- Erratic, withdrawn, or aggressive behavior
- Queasiness, vomiting, or dry heaving
If a drunk person throws up, it often means that the stomach is too irritated for food and water. If the person is willing to drink water, it can help him or her stay hydrated. However, remember that this doesn’t help make a person sober more quickly (neither will coffee, eating food, or taking a cold shower). Only time will allow alcohol to work its way out of the body. Once a person is already intoxicated, food may actually make him or her feel sicker or cause choking.
If your friend wants to lie down, make sure he or she is lying on his side or stomach. If someone vomits while on his or her back, it can cause choking and death. It’s important for a responsible (preferably sober) person to stay awake and watch the individual for several hours, making sure he doesn’t roll on his back and occasionally checking that the person is conscious. Someone who is unconscious will not respond to gentle shaking or being spoken to, and may have shallow, slow breathing.
If there are signs that someone is having trouble breathing, is severely ill, has mixed alcohol with other drugs (including prescriptions), or is unconscious, call for an ambulance as quickly as possible. Alcohol poisoning is a real possibility and time is of the essence. If you are unsure, always err on the side of caution. Many university campuses have their own emergency medical services that you can call, but otherwise, call 9-1-1.
Remember, it is dangerous to leave drunk friends to fend for themselves or ignore warning signs. Even if you’re afraid of getting into trouble, your safety (and that of your friends) should be the first priority.
One key strategy for safety is to make sure there’s at least one person in your group who is completely sober who can make decisions in case someone gets dangerously drunk. Drinking impairs judgment, and so if you have been drinking too, alcohol might cloud your ability to make the right call.
If you have a friend who is repeatedly drinking to the point of being unable to care for him or herself, perhaps it’s time for a new approach. Do you like spending weekends cleaning up vomit, trying to stop bad behavior, and worrying for others’ safety? You may want to bring it up with your friend, privately at a time when he or she is sober. Tell your friend how you feel about this behavior. Convey concern, but try not to preach. Offer your support, and encourage the friend to get help.
For more tips on talking with a friend about his or her drinking, click here.
For general information about alcohol, click here.