Good Question: How Does Alcohol Poisoning Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It was the alcohol after all. Amy Winehouse died in London of what some call alcohol poisoning. A coroner found her blood alcohol level was at 0.40. But how does alcohol poison your body?

“We tend not to word the term alcohol poisoning,” said Doug Brunette, MD, the assistant chief of emergency medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center. “If you overdose on Tylenol it can destroy your liver and cause your death. I don’t use the term ‘Tylenol poisoning.'”

According to Brunette, alcohol doesn’t act like a typical poison, rather it “Directly affects the respiratory center of the brain so you stop breathing,” he said.

Alcohol is a depressant. It goes into your stomach and is absorbed into the blood and the nervous system.  As you drink, your blood alcohol level grows.

“And when it gets really high and you pass out, become unconscious, enter a coma, at dangerously high level of alcohol,” said Brunette.

Some people pass out, then their respiratory brain center shuts down and then they die. Others pass out, vomit while they’re unconscious and choke on their vomit.

Brunette said he sees people who have overdosed on alcohol every day at HCMC in Minneapolis, and when someone overdoses, there’s really no way to reverse it and bring them back.

“There is no antidote to alcohol overdose,” said Brunette.

So how much is too much?

“Maybe it’s 0.3, maybe it’s 0.4, maybe it’s 0.5. It’s going to be different from patient to patient,” he said.

Alcoholics can develop “functional tolerance” – they somehow reprogram their brain to work even though alcohol is trying to shut it down.

“I’ve had people at 0.4, 0.5 talking to me,” said Brunette.

But that is not a protection against overdose.

“Is this more about the speed of drinking or the volume of alcohol?” asked WCCO-TV Reporter Jason DeRusha.

“Both,” said Brunette.

More from Jason DeRusha
  • Lonna

    All drugs change brain chemistry, and death from withdraw is actually a common effect of using any number of drugs, particularly opiates.

  • Bill

    Don’t get it, Money up the ying yang, Everything at their disposal and their still unhappy!, Some people would sell their right leg for that life!

    • Lefty

      For Sale: Right Leg
      Asking for the life of a druggie alcoholic singer or best offer. Place money in an envelope, not in the ying yang please.

      • em1022

        lmao!! that was a good one!!

  • Answering Your Questions About Alcohol Poisoning « CBS Minnesota

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  • DeRusha H8R

    Good Question: Why don’t my posts show up?

  • gordokong

    So why does alcohol affect people so differently when it comes to alcohol poisoning, but everybody is held to the standard of .08 when it comes to driving?

  • Courtney

    @gordokong – Very good question. I’ve often wondered that and no one can up with a reasonable answer. The bar that my family and friends meet at to watch the games has a pay-per-use breathalizer and I’ve seen drunk people come up with MUCH lower levels than people who aren’t drunk at all. Everyone has a different tolerance level. And these difference can be extreme. And yet, the law says that this one number represents drunkeness. Drunk driving tickets has become nothing but a business for police. Which is sad. The .08 number often times punishes the wrong people. Plus, the machines that the police use are completely inaccurate. They’ve done many tests on them and they never come up with a consistent number and can be effected by burps, acid reflux, whatever else is in the stomach, and personal chemistry.

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