Alcohol Intoxication and Injury Risk

Patient in E.R.

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Injuries are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 45 and the fourth leading cause of death overall. Each year thousands of people die from injuries and an estimated one in three suffer some type of nonfatal injury that sends them to the emergency room.

Unfortunately, alcohol plays a role in far too many of these fatal and nonfatal injuries, whether they be traffic fatalities; nonfatal auto crashes; fires or burns; hypothermia or frostbite; or completed suicides.

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Drinking alcohol increases the risk of trauma in two ways: the likelihood of being injured and an increased seriousness of the injury.

It stands to reason that if someone is intoxicated enough to slur their speech or not be able to walk straight, they are at greater risk of incurring an injury.

Higher Risk of Accident and Injury

Numerous studies have reported that those who abuse alcohol are more likely than sober people to become involved in a traumatic event. Heavy drinkers have an even higher risk of having an accident than those who do not drink.

Although there are some scientists who dispute the claim, several studies have found that intoxicated persons are more likely to be injured more seriously than sober people even in nontraffic-related injuries.

Drinkers Have More Serious Injuries

Researchers do not understand what exact factors contribute to the findings that alcohol contributes to more serious injuries, and one study disputes those findings, but the consensus is that the belief that intoxicated people are less likely to be hurt in a crash because they are so relaxed, is not backed up by evidence.

The role that alcohol has in injuries is not fully known because very few emergency room patients are routinely tested for blood-alcohol content (BAC). Although health officials have suggested that all injury patients be assessed for alcohol consumption, research shows that it is rarely done.

Few E.R. Patients BAC Checked

Even when the injured person was the driver of the car that crashed, one study found that only about a fourth of those involved in vehicle crashes are tested for BAC. Another national survey found that just over half of trauma centers routinely tested patients for blood alcohol.

Although data on alcohol-related injuries are incomplete, the statistics we do have are staggering. Researchers have reported a steady increase among U.S. college students in alcohol-related deaths, heavy drinking, and drunk driving. The increase in deaths, particularly among 18 to 24-year-olds, was mostly due to traffic injuries.

To Many Alcohol-Related Deaths

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, based on 2006-2011 data, that on average, alcohol is a factor in the deaths of 4,358 young people under age 21 each year. Those deaths include:

  • 1,580 deaths from motor vehicle crashes
  • 1,269 from homicides
  • 245 from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning
  • 492 from suicides

A Death Every 51 Minutes

The CDC reported that in 2011 alone, about 188,000 young people under age 21 visited emergency facilities for alcohol-related injuries, a number which is probably low because of the lack of BAC testing in many E.R. settings.

Surveys have found that almost 30 people die every day in the U.S. in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver — about one death every 51 minutes.

97,000 Sexual Assaults Per Year

Other studies have found alcohol takes a huge toll among U.S. college students:

  • 1,835 students aged 18-24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries.
  • 700,000 students are assaulted each year by another drinking student.
  • 97,000 students 18-24 experience alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

These statistics do not include other, non-injury problems alcohol can cause students by leading to poor judgment about engaging in risky behavior.

"These are tragic, unacceptably high rates," says Ralph W. Hingson, Sc.D., director of the NIAAA Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research. "There is an urgent need for colleges and college communities to put in place prevention and counseling programs that focus on underage and young adult drinking."

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