Alcohol Poisoning: The Death You Don’t See Coming
Drunk driving might get all the attention, but when it comes to teens and drinking, this problem is just as life-threatening.
It was the first day of summer 2009, when 16-year-old Scott Roberts and his buddies decided to mark the end of 10th grade by heading to a friend’s home. The friend’s parents were out of town—and that was part of the plan. As the Southern California day darkened to night, they started playing drinking games, including one where each person drew a slash on his forearm every time he threw back a shot of liquor.
Scott had never been drunk before, so it probably didn’t surprise his friends that he was the first to pass out. The friends scribbled lewd messages about Scott’s older sister across his body and kept playing. By the time the night was over, at least one guy had 24 slashes on his arm. When one of them woke up at 4:30 a.m. and saw that Scott had thrown up and urinated on himself, he moved Scott off the carpet to let him sleep it off on a tile floor.
Later that day, Scott’s dad, Steve, was taking a shower when he heard pounding on his front door. He went to a window and saw the police. Although Scott was a stereotypical good kid—a quiet, sweet-natured homebody who loved to skateboard, and played football and wrestled for San Marcos High School—Steve worried that the boys had been caught doing something stupid, like egging cars.
Four years later, the pounding on the door and the sight of the police still plays over and over in Steve Roberts’s head. Scott, it turned out, wasn’t in trouble. He was dead from acute alcohol poisoning. The coroner’s report would later show that his blood alcohol level was at .32, more than four times the legal limit in California. By the time his friends realized that something was seriously wrong, it was too late to save him.
On a Binge
What happened to Scott Roberts wasn’t a freak accident. Every year, 5,000 people younger than 21 die because of alcohol-related accidents, including alcohol poisoning. And the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that 90 percent of the alcohol teens drink is consumed during dangerous binge drinking—four or more drinks in one sitting if you’re a girl, five or more if you’re a guy. Chugging large quantities of anything, from beer to vodka, increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. Your body is taking in toxins faster than it can filter them out.
Alcohol is a depressant drug, so it shuts down important functions in your brain, including your body’s ability to sneeze, gag, and breathe. In extreme cases, alcohol poisoning can even stop your heart. Because everybody reacts differently to alcohol—some can’t process it well; others might be taking medications that turn a beer into a toxic brew—you’re taking a big risk anytime you drink, even if it’s just a little.
Teens can also drink more than adults without losing their balance or falling asleep, which are the body’s warning signs to stop. “Alcohol has a very narrow window for safety,” says Aaron White, program director for college and underage-drinking-prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland. “Teens haven’t finished growing, so it’s even easier to get poisoned. “You can go from a buzz to dead very quickly.”
Dozing to Death
But it’s not just reckless drinking habits that are to blame for these senseless tragedies. Kids—and a lot of adults—believe that “sleeping it off” is the best cure for extreme drunkenness. That myth costs lives. “Their friends put them somewhere to sleep, and then the person drowns in, or chokes on, their vomit,”says White.
Furthermore, a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. What that means is that even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestines continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body.
Barry Adkins wishes the friends of his 18-year-old son, Kevin, who died from doing shots shortly after graduating from high school, had known these important facts about alcohol poisoning. But instead of recognizing that vomiting and passing out are signs that someone should call 911, Kevin’s friends shaved his head and legs and kept drinking. Kevin’s skin was already blue when they realized they should call someone. “Kevin was our youngest,” says Adkins. “The extent of his involvement in the law was a speeding ticket when he was 16. And then he was pronounced dead in the hospital while I was in bed sleeping.”
Too Afraid to Help
One crucial factor that makes alcohol poisoning particularly dangerous among teenagers: Since drinking is illegal for those under age 21, teens are reluctant to call for help. They’re afraid of getting in serious trouble with their parents—and the law.
That’s what happened when one 16-year-old was celebrating New Year’s Eve with his friends at his home in Brooklyn, NY. After playing drinking games, one of the girls started throwing up. “She was puking everywhere, and she peed herself,” he says. “We had no idea what was going on with her. The fact that we were all having so much fun a few minutes before and then it got so much worse—there was a lot of panicking.”
The friends knew about alcohol poisoning from health class. But still, they argued about what to do. The host’s parents had always assured their son that he wouldn’t get in trouble for drinking if he called for help. So he screwed up his courage and got a hold of them. They raced home and called an ambulance.
Thankfully, the girl survived. But if it was terrifying to realize she could have died, it was also sobering to hear the police explain that if she hadn’t survived, his parents could have gone to jail, simply because the drinking took place in their home.
Today, states are working to make it easier for teens to call for help. Medical-amnesty protection, which grants limited immunity to intoxicated minors who are the first to call and seek medical attention for themselves or a friend, has been enacted in 14 states and the District of Columbia. “The only thing the police will want to know is how long the (intoxicated) person has been drinking, how much they’ve been drinking, and if they’ve eaten,” says Aaron Letzeiser, the executive director of the Medical Amnesty Initiative, a nonprofit organization that educates teenagers about this life-saving law.
The fact that Scott Roberts’s life could have been saved if one of his friends had called 911 the minute he passed out still haunts his parents. “I feel like someone slugged me in the stomach,” says Steve Roberts. “The pain never goes away.” His wife, Ursula, wishes that more teenagers understood the devastating toll alcohol can take on a young body. “If you are experimenting with alcohol, you aren’t being tough by drinking a lot,” she says. “You are playing Russian roulette. Make sure you save your friend’s life. Make sure your friends don’t die.”