Every day, an average of six people in the United States die from alcohol poisoning—the majority of them middle-aged men, according to a new Vital Signs report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is likely to be an underestimate,” the CDC’s Deputy Principal Director, Ileana Arias, Ph.D., said during a Jan. 6, 2015 press briefing.

Dr. Arias highlighted findings from a study of alcohol poisoning among people aged 15 and older that coauthor Dr. Robert D. Brewer and associates conducted using multiple cause-of-death data from the National Vital Statistics for 2010-2012. They found that more than 2,200 Americans died each year of alcohol poisoning, for an average of six deaths every day each year. Three in four alcohol poisoning deaths involved adults 35-54 years old, mostly men.

The researchers determined that binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men during a period of 2-3 hours, accounted for most of the deaths. “Despite the risks, more than 38 million U.S. adults report binge drinking about four times per month and consume an average of eight drinks per binge,” Dr. Arias said. “Alcohol poisoning is caused by consuming a very large amount of alcohol in a very short period of time.”

A person’s response to alcohol can vary depending on many factors, including the grade of alcohol consumed, the health of the drinker, and whether the drinker has consumed other drugs. “But the key point is this: The more you drink, the greater you are at risk of poisoning and of death,” she said.

Dr. Arias noted that a 12-ounce can of 5% beer contains the same amount of alcohol as a 5-ounce glass of 12% wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. “It’s also best to avoid drinks with unknown alcohol content and be very cautious when mixing alcohol with energy drinks,” she said. “Caffeine can mask alcohol’s effects, causing you to drink more than you intended [to].”

When assessed by race and ethnicity, the majority of alcohol-poisoning deaths occurred among non-Hispanic whites. However, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the most alcohol-poisoning deaths per million people. Alcohol-poisoning deaths also varied widely across states, ranging from 5.3 deaths per million residents in Alabama to 46.5 deaths per million residents in Alaska. “Alcohol dependence was identified as a factor in 30% of these deaths and other drugs contributed to 3% of the deaths,” she said.

Life-threatening signs of alcohol poisoning include the inability to wake up from sleep, vomiting, seizures, slow or irregular breathing or heart rate, and low body temperature, bluish skin color, or pallor. Dr. Arias said that health professionals can play a role in the prevention of deaths related to alcohol poisoning by screening all adult patients for excessive drinking, counseling those who do so to help them drink less, and referring excessive drinkers who are alcohol dependent for specialized treatment.

“The bottom line is that binge drinking can be lethal,” she said. “Alcohol poisoning is killing people across the lifespan, but in particular men in the prime of their lives.”

None of the researchers reported having relevant financial disclosures.

dbrunk@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @dougbrunk

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