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Just how common is 'extreme binge drinking'? Parents might be surprised

December 14, 2009 |  3:59 pm

The kind of alcohol consumption that appears to have claimed the life of an 18-year-old South Pasadena student is hardly rare among high school seniors, according to a federal survey of teen drug and alcohol use released Monday.

Until very recently, the yearly survey of drug, alcohol and tobacco use -- called "Monitoring the Future" -- asked eighth, 10th and 12th graders only about "binge drinking," defined as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row. But according to University of Michigan's Lloyd Johnston, who oversees the yearly survey, high school seniors have been asked in recent years about rates of "extreme binge drinking" -- the consumption of more than 10 or more than 15 drinks on a single occasion.

How many do it? Johnston said Monday that in the two weeks before completing the survey, 11% of high school seniors said they had consumed more than 10 alcoholic drinks in a single sitting, and 6% said they had consumed more than 15.

While the rate of binge drinking has come down since its peak in 1983, this "extreme binge drinking" does not seem to have budged much in the years that researchers have followed it, said Johnston on Monday.

Whether South Pasadena's Aydin Salek fell in this category remains to be seen. But extreme binge drinking is extremely risky, and alcohol poisoning is one of the potentially fatal outcomes that are possible as alcohol saturation levels in the blood reach well beyond the .08 level widely used as the basis for drunk-driving arrests.

Other potentially fatal outcomes are even less pretty: because severe inebriation compromises the gag reflex, a person who's passed out after too much alcohol could choke on vomit, or aspirate it into the lungs, causing serious infection. A person gurgling -- or even snoring, as Salek is reported to have done -- may be in respiratory crisis. 

How would you know if someone needs immediate medical attention for possible alcohol poisoning? Here are some things to watch for, including seizures, slowed breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute), low temperature or a pale or blue-ish tinge to the complexion.

And here's a blood-alcohol level calculator. You'll reach the point of impairment sooner than you may think.

-- Melissa Healy