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A 19-year-old college freshman began drinking alcohol at 8:30 PM during a hazing event at his new fraternity. Between 8:30 and approximately midnight, he and several other pledges consumed beer and a bottle of whiskey, and then he consumed most of a bottle of rum at the urging of upperclassmen. The young man complained of feeling nauseated, lay down on a couch, and began to lose consciousness. Two upperclassmen carried him to a bedroom, placed him on his stomach, and positioned a trash can nearby. Approximately 10 minutes later, the freshman was found unconscious and covered with vomit. There was a delay in treatment because the upperclassmen called the college police instead of calling 911. After the call was transferred to 911, emergency medical technicians responded quickly and discovered that the young man was not breathing and that he had choked on his vomit. He was rushed to the hospital, where he remained in a coma for 2 days before ultimately being pronounced dead. The patient’s blood alcohol concentration shortly after arriving at the hospital was 510 mg/dL. What was the cause of this patient’s death? If he had received medical care sooner, what treatment might have prevented his death?

Alcohol, primarily in the form of ethyl alcohol (ethanol), has occupied an important place in the history of humankind for at least 8000 years. In Western society, beer and wine were a main staple of daily life until the 19th century. These relatively dilute alcoholic beverages were preferred over water, which was known—long before the discovery of microbes—to be associated with acute and chronic illness. Partially sterilized by the fermentation process and the alcohol content, alcoholic beverages provided calories and some nutrients and served as a main source of daily liquid intake. As systems for improved sanitation and water purification were introduced in the 1800s, beer and wine became less important components of the human diet, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages, including distilled preparations with higher concentrations of alcohol, shifted toward their present-day role, in many societies, as a socially acceptable form of recreation.

Today, alcohol is widely consumed. Like other sedative-hypnotic drugs, alcohol in low to moderate amounts relieves anxiety and fosters a feeling of well-being or even euphoria. However, alcohol is also the most commonly abused drug in the world, and the cause of vast medical and societal costs. In the United States, approximately 75% of the adult population drinks alcohol regularly. The majority of this drinking population is able to enjoy the pleasurable effects of alcohol without allowing alcohol consumption to become a health risk. However, 8–10% of the general population in the United States has an alcohol-use disorder. Individuals who use alcohol in dangerous situations (eg, drinking and driving or combining alcohol with other medications) or continue to drink alcohol despite adverse consequences related directly to their alcohol consumption suffer from alcohol abuse (see also Chapter 32). Individuals with ...

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