Long-term effects of blacking out can be 'poisonous'
With Welcome Weekend around the corner, and many CMU students experiencing a heavy party weekend for the first time in their college careers, it is inevitable a student will drink to much and run the risk of passing out — or worse.
Just ask Lowell native Alex McIntyre. After a night of drinking during the fall 2014 semester, McIntyre was forcibly checked in to McLaren-Central Michigan by his roommates.
McIntyre,19-years-old at the time, was admitted to the emergency room with a blood alcohol level of 0.38. Doctors at the hospital told him most alcoholics have a BAC of 0.3 when they black out. Venturing near 0.4 to 0.5 BAC is almost certain death.
“Throughout the night, I just remember drinking more and more — some of it I knew what it was, some of it was just random water bottles people handed to me,” McIntyre said. “About four hours after we left the dorms, I just blacked out. I don’t really know what happened.”
McIntyre said the rest of the night was recounted to him later after his roommate, Escanaba junior Bryn Beauchamp, picked him up from McLaren-Central Michigan at roughly 5 a.m. the next day.
At several points during the night, McIntyre’s eyes had “rolled into the back of his head,” he had stopped breathing and would mumble incoherently when Beauchamp tried to check on him.
McIntyre’s experience drinking at parties landed him in the hospital, but his case isn’t uncommon in a college town said Dr. Daniel Wilkerson, director of emergency medicine at McLaren-Central Michigan.
The effects of blacking out
Periods of heavy drinking around holidays or Welcome Weekend are a “major strain” on the emergency room, Wilkerson said. On a normal day, the ER can support 12 beds worth of patients.
Most “party weekends,” anywhere from 12 to 15 people are taken to the ER at varying levels of intoxication. Some are brought by ambulances pulled from other counties to accommodate the number of calls.
Despite the trouble it causes the ER, Wilkerson said the long-term effects of blacking out for a drinker aren’t “incredibly serious” unless they “make it a continuous habit.”
“Alcohol is a toxin, so you’re essentially poisoning yourself and your brain over time,” Wilkerson said. “It takes long-term alcohol use, a lot of alcohol over (many) years time, to see major physiological issues with the brain. If someone drinks a fifth of alcohol a day, it’s not going to take as long as someone who rarely drinks. But that’s on top of other factors like vitamin deficiencies or head injuries.”
Factors such as a drinker’s ability to metabolize alcohol, their sex, weight, height and even medication use can effect how quickly or slowly alcohol is “soaked up” by the brain, Wilkerson said.
Alcohol is classified as a depressant and can cause both respiratory and Central Nervous System depression. Air will not be drawn into the body as fast nor as regularly as it is when sober, Wilkerson said, which can lead the drinker to fall into a “drug induced sleep” if too much is consumed.
It also leads to issues with storing memories, he said.
“Alcohol effects your short-term memory and basically your ability to store new data,” Wilkerson said. “At a certain alcohol level, your brain isn’t able to ‘press record’ and keep (memories) so you can remember it at a later time. There’s no way to get (those memories) back.”
Wilkerson said contrary to popular belief, the brain doesn’t shut down in parts due to alcohol, but is effected all at once — like a sponge soaking up alcohol. Once the alcohol is processed through the body, the drinker will be able to remember “bits and pieces,” Wilkerson said, but recalling memories from the blackout period are impossible.
Unless alcohol use is habitual, long term effects of memory loss to a drinker should not be of great concern Wilkerson said.
Students should look out for not just themselves, but each other as well.
See something, do something
After his incident, McIntyre said he’s much more cautious with drinking.
“After (the hospital trip) I was more upset with the way I effected other people than what happened to myself,” he said. “My roommates were all freaking out pretty bad (at the time). Having the doctor at McLaren tell me if my roommates hadn’t called (an ambulance) I would have been dead was freaky.”
When faced with a person who is believed to be overly intoxicated, Wilkerson said, it’s important to remove any alcohol from their possession and replace it with water.
A person who is stumbling and unable to walk, cannot respond coherently to questioning or is falling asleep can also indicate a drinker is in a “blacked out state.” When this happens, sober bystanders can help to put the drinker in a space that is easy to monitor them in.
Wilkerson said placing a blacked out drinker on their side is the best thing to do. If they vomit, they are less likely to choke on their own fluids.
If a student is worried for the safety of a drinker, Wilkerson said the best thing to do is call the hospital.
“The hospital is here to treat medical conditions,” he said. “Alcohol intoxication is a medical condition. We’re not out to bust people because they’re drunk. It’s more about making sure the patients who are intoxicated are safe and they’re not going to have any medical problems.”
Beauchamp, who made the decision to alert his resident assistant for help, said he’s much more alert at parties and other social gatherings since McIntyre’s hospital trip.
He said for students in the residence halls, if they’re ever afraid for the safety of someone over intoxicated, their first instinct should always be to call 911.
“(The police) would rather see the (intoxicated) person safe than worry about how old they are,” Beauchamp said. “You’re not going to get in trouble if you do what’s right.”