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Alcohol & overdose: the hidden harm

Alcohol is a drug less commonly linked with overdose than illicit substances, such as heroin. However studies of ambulance call-outs show that when paramedics are called to a drug-related emergency or overdose, the drug is most often alcohol.

A study of ambulance call-outs by the Turning Point drug agency for instance found that in 2011-12 Victorian alcohol-related emergencies (8,824) exceeded those for heroin, cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines and benzodiazepines combined (6,665).

Alcohol overdoses are a real cause for concern because they are extremely common and yet the symptoms are frequently not recognised as such.

International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31 is aimed at opening up discussion of the subject so people can recognise the symptoms of overdose and seek help. Knowing what to do in the case of an overdose can be a life-saver.

It should not be overlooked that humans have a long association with alcohol which has often enriched society. Our culture would be the poorer were it to have been robbed of the inspiration, the colour, the variety and the humour which drinking in moderation has contributed.

But alcohol overdose emerges as problem because often it occurs as a result of drinking binges, sometimes on a bet or a dare.

Alcohol is a depressant drug so it can dampen involuntary actions such as breathing, the heart beat, and the gag reflex. So a person can choke on their vomit or their breathing may shut down and they can asphyxiate.

Non-fatal overdoses can also leave the victim with permanent brain damage.

Celebrity overdoses such as that of Amy Winehouse will occasionally place alcohol overdose in the spotlight.

The coroner found the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was more than five times the drink-drive limit. The pathologist who conducted her post-mortem examination found she had 416mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.  He told an inquest that 350mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood was considered a fatal level.

Closer to home, it is well known that in Australia the scale of mortality and morbidity related to alcohol is substantial. For instance in the decade leading to 2004/05, a total 32,696 Australians aged 15 years and over died from risky or high risk alcohol consumption [1].

International Overdose Awareness Day 2013 is a day for people to reflect on the high price drug misuse exacts on society and how we can reduce the toll.

Alcohol is such an entrenched part of our culture that we can easily overlook its capacity to maim and kill.

Details of International Overdose Awareness Day can be found at www.overdoseday.com

You can follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter at @OverdoseDay

[1] Pascal, R., Chikritzhs, T. & Jones, P. (2009). Trends in estimated alcohol attributable deaths and hospitalisations in Australia, 1996-2005. National Alcohol Indicators, Bulletin No.12. Perth: National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology

John Ryan

John Ryan is Chief Executive of public health group Anex, the convenor of International Overdose Awareness Day.


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