McMaster University

McMaster University

TEEN DRINKING: ER doc has seen it all

The Hamilton Spectator
Danielle Wong
March 6, 2012

In her 15 years at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Dr. Carys Massarella has seen many teenagers brought into the emergency department after drinking too much.

The one constant she has noticed is that alcohol spans across social categories.

“That’s what’s interesting about alcohol; it doesn’t pick people from certain social economic classes. It’s a problem that cuts across all sections of society,” the emergency department physician said.

“We see teenagers from Ancaster as well as teenagers from the east end.”

She has seen patients as young as 13 or 14 come into the ER, adding the highest number of alcohol-related patients occur during holidays or weekends in the summer.

“Like most emergency departments, the No. 1 substance of abuse we see is alcohol,” she said. “It outnumbers all the other substance abuses combined.”

The most common incidents of death related to alcohol is misadventure, when people get so drunk they do things they normally wouldn’t do, the St. Joe’s physician said, adding trauma related to drinking is also something they see regularly.

The biggest risk of death for patients coming to the hospital because of acute alcohol intoxication is vomit aspiration, she said, adding people can breathe in their own regurgitation and suffer from cardiac arrest.

There is a range of symptoms of a young person struggling with an alcohol problem — with some of the more subtle signs being a change in friends or social circles, a drop in grades, withdrawal from hobbies or other activities they normally enjoy and sometimes even weight loss, McMaster Children’s Hospital adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Christina Grant said.

According to an annual survey of Grade 7 to Grade 12 students put out by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), binge drinking — which is more than five drinks in an evening or couple of hours — has stayed about the same during the past two decades and alcohol use has gone down, Grant said.

Binge drinking peaks in Grade 12, as 30 per cent say they have engaged in binge drinking in the previous four weeks, she said.

“Young people who have underlying anxiety or mood disorders are at increased risk for substance use, including alcohol and binge drinking, because (they) would see it as a way to self-medicate,” Grant said.

If parents are concerned about their adolescent, they need to talk to their family physician or call Alternatives for Youth, an addictions counselling agency, she said.

“Even if the young person (doesn’t want) to go, they can go as parents and find out how they can help their young person.”

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