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How To Tell When Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning

By Meagan Drillinger
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Carol Anderson, LMSW, ACSW on December 16, 2020
Learn what alcohol poisoning is and why it's a medical emergency.

Part of drinking alcohol responsibly means understanding your limit. Drinking too much in too short an amount of time can have serious consequences, one of which could be a dangerous condition called alcohol poisoning. 

Your doctor may call it acute alcohol intoxication or an acute alcohol overdose.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

It’s a medical emergency that can sometimes be fatal without treatment. When you drink a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time, it can disrupt vital processes like your breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.

Symptoms can include:

  • Confusion
  • Trouble staying conscious
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Clammy/pale/blue skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Poor coordination
  • Loss of bladder or bowel functioning

What Should You Do if You Notice Symptoms?

"If you're witnessing someone who you believe has alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately," says Lawrence Weinstein, MD, Chief Medical Officer of American Addiction Centers. "On average, alcohol poisoning kills six people in the U.S. each day. Assuming that the person is just drunk and the situation will resolve eventually can be a grave error."

"After calling 911, keep the person awake, upright, and leaning forward enough to avoid choking," Weinstein says. If the person is not upright or unconscious, turn them on their side to prevent choking. 

"The person should also be kept warm because alcohol poisoning can make them feel cold," he says.

Getting Help for Problem Drinking

If you feel that daily drinking is becoming a problem in your life or in the life of someone you know, there are many options available for help. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about one-third of people treated for alcohol problems have no further symptoms a year later. Step one is to speak with your doctor, who will be able to determine which treatments are right.

Some options are:

Counseling: There are a variety of behavioral treatment options available. They include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps change the thought processes that lead to drinking. Motivational enhancement therapy (MET) focuses on identifying the pros and cons of seeking treatment, forming a plan, building confidence, and developing skills to stick to the plan. Marital and family counseling gets loved ones even more involved in your recovery.

Support Groups: Ones like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs bring people together to help support each other with quitting or cutting back on their drinking. These groups may be combined with behavioral treatments.

Rehabilitation Centers: Sometimes the problem has become so severe that it may require medical detox. Alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizure and possibly death if it’s not done under proper medical supervision. So if the condition is serious enough, an in-patient program, after detox, may be the best course of action. 

Medications: They’re prescribed by a doctor or other health professional and can help you quit or cut back on drinking if you have a severe alcohol problem. Three drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for alcohol dependence: naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram. 

While these options are valuable, the most important action is to get the person who is in the midst of alcohol poisoning immediate medical help. Don’t delay, it could cost a life.

Treatment & Resources for Alcohol Addiction