Would you know if someone was suffering from hypoglycemia or just drunk?

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Resuscitation or first aid is probably the last thing on your mind at this time of year, but reluctantly it might end up being the first.


We see far too often the worrying consequences of alcohol abuse:


  • Vomiting
  • Irregular blood sugar levels
  • Irrational and abusive behaviour
  • Injury due to falls or fights
  • Confusion and even unconsciousness
  • Depression


All these side effects come with their own problems – choking, head injuries or bleeding, seizures, hypoglycemia, alcohol poisoning and hypothermia for example. Being able to know what to look for and how to apply the correct first aid techniques could save someone a visit to A&E, or even their life.


What is hypoglycaemia?


Hypoglycemia (a ‘Hypo’) is the inability to metabolise blood sugars, resulting in a decreased and inadequate glucose level, affecting the body’s ability to function normally. This is a medical emergency.


A diabetic will suffer hypo if their blood sugar levels fall below their normal level. They can appear:


  • Sweaty
  • Trembling
  • Weak
  • Sleepy
  • Confused
  • Agitated
  • Aggressive
  • Disorientated with a lowered level of consciousness


If a hypo is prolonged permanent brain damage can occur. These symptoms can appear with little or no warning and left untreated can have serious consequences and even death.


What to do?


So, it’s easy to see how this can be mistaken for being drunk. But what if the person is already drunk when they become hypoglycemic? Recognise and diagnose the problem will be much harder and their level of consciousness might make communication difficult.


What they need is glucose or sugar, which may not be to hand. If the person is able to swallow, give them a sugar based or a high energy drink. Be prepared to protect the person’s airway in case of regurgitation. If the person does not show an improved level of consciousness and awareness, or if you are in any doubt, call 999 for an ambulance.


The effects of alcohol on the body


Alcohol affects the body’s central nervous system and the normal functioning of many organs, it can cause raised blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, irritation of the stomach and dehydration. Alcohol abuse can result in some pretty drastic short and long-term effects:


  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Memory loss or mental health issues.
  • Dependency.
  • Chronic pancreatitis.
  • Liver cirrhosis.
  • Cancer, heart disease and even heart attack.
  • Wrinkles and weight gain.
  • Death.


Your own awareness


Having a little knowledge of what alcohol can do to the system, and how to differentiate the symptoms could be useful in an emergency.


If you know that a member of your party is diabetic try and find out what their normal blood sugar level is. Your assessment could mean the difference in diagnosing a hypo with positive treatment to promote recovery.


  • If you think someone has drunk too much, encourage them to stop.
  • If they have lowered levels of consciousness, place them in the recovery position protecting their airway.
  • Never leave them unattended.
  • Keep them warm.
  • Keep calm and reason with them, avoiding confrontation.
  • Dial 999.


Useful links:


You might also be interested in our blog that gives some simple guidelines about dialling 999.


First Response. Training for life. Training to save a life.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 September 2015
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Tim Hart

Tim Hart IQA AET - Director

Emergency Ambulance Practitioner RRV/CIEH Professional Trainer/Assessors A1/FAETC Stage 1/CTLLS/Safe People Handling Instructor (RoSPA)
Great Western Ambulance NHS Trust. Affiliate Member of the Society for Education and Training.

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