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When Alcohol Turns Deadly

Deadly Beer

Homecoming. Greek recruitment. Tailgates. Fall is a rockin' time for college students, providing many social events where alcohol is readily available. But while enjoying a drink or two may start out as harmless fun, what happens when one alcoholic drink turns into five, six…or death?

Caitlyn Kovacs, a 19-year-old Sophomore at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, died this September due to alcohol related stress after drinking heavily at a college fraternity party. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Caitlyn joined the average of 88,000 who die each year due to alcohol-related causes. As the nation mourns her death, Zane Horowitz, MD, and the medical director of the Utah Poison Control Center, shared advice on how to recognize and prevent deaths like Kovacs's from happening in the future.


Q: The death of Caitlyn Kovacs is heartbreaking. Do you see cases like these frequently?

Horowitz: Almost every fall, when school starts, we see an unfortunate case like this where someone dies from excess drinking. Often these situations are related to group drinking, parties, fraternities, hazing, or something else along those lines in which students who are inexperienced with drinking are encouraged to chug large amounts of highly concentrated alcohol in a short amount of time.


Q: What are the most common signs of alcohol poisoning?

Horowitz: The two most common signs are speech impairment and lack of coordination. More specifically, if a person is highly speech impaired to the point they are not making sense and speaking only partial sentences that don't seem to have a relationship to the conversation, they are likely in trouble. If speech impediments are then coupled with an inability to sit, stand, or walk without falling over, they are likely experiencing some degree of alcohol poisoning.


Q: What should someone do if they suspect that they, or someone else, is suffering from alcohol poisoning?

Horowitz: Seek medical attention. Though college students may avoid hospitals in this situation for fear of getting in trouble, those who have severe alcohol poisoning need to be observed in a health care setting where they can be monitored, such as an emergency room. If you fear your friend is experiencing alcohol poisoning, you should call 911, even if you are underage and/or intoxicated yourself. You will not get in trouble. People will applaud you for saving a life.


Q: Can someone who is impacted by alcohol poisoning just "sleep it off"?

Horowitz: No. If a person who is experiencing extreme alcohol poisoning is put to bed, it is possible that person may stop breathing as the alcohol continues to be absorbed into their body. Other medications that person is taking may also interact with the alcohol and can have serious adverse effects. Additionally, a person will sometimes vomit while lying down and then the vomit gets sucked back into the lungs, causing he/she to die from asphyxiation.


Q: What is a safe amount of alcohol to drink?

Horowitz: Everyone is unique. Some are poorly tolerant of alcohol and some genetically have a slow metabolism. Others can hold their liquor. But as a general rule, drinking more than a drink an hour gets into the danger zone. It also depends on what you are drinking. Drinking concentrated liquor, like vodka or rum, will get you intoxicated much faster than, say, wine or beer. However, drinking any type of alcohol in excess can still be dangerous.


Q: What is your final advice on drinking safely and responsibly?

Horowitz: Basically, like many things in life, this comes down to common sense and moderation. First of all, the drinking age in most states is 21, not 18. Follow the rules because they are probably there for a good reason. Ideally, drink in a place where you can easily walk home or secure a ride from a sober friend, taxi, or shuttle. Do not drink to impress people or challenge others because you put yourself in the most danger when drinking as part of a dare or race.