What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning happens when there’s too much alcohol in your blood, causing parts of your brain to shut down. It’s also called alcohol overdose.
Your liver usually does a good job of keeping alcohol's toxins from getting into your bloodstream. But if you drink a lot in a short time, your liver may not be able to keep up.
Alcohol poisoning can lead to brain damage or death. If you’re with someone who might have drunk too much, call 911 right away. Don't be afraid to get help. If you or your friend are under the legal drinking age, you might be worried about the legal consequences. But alcohol poisoning is so serious, that not calling 911 could result in death. In any case, it's unlikely that the paramedics or hospital team will call the police. Most states have Good Samaritan laws, which allow people to call 911 without fear of arrest if they're having a drug or alcohol overdose or see someone else who is overdosing.
Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
Symptoms start mild and grow worse. Signs of being drunk include:
- Confusion or slurred speech
- Poor coordination or stumbling
- Damp or clammy skin
Alcohol poisoning could include those signs plus some more serious symptoms. These include:
- Severe confusion
- Trouble staying awake
- Throwing up
- Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
- Long pauses between breaths (10 seconds or more)
- Very slow heartbeat
- Low body temperature
- Bluish, gray, or pale skin
- Slow responses (such as a gag reflex)
Alcohol Poisoning Complications
In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can cause problems such as:
Alcohol Poisoning Causes
Alcoholic drinks contain a form of alcohol known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol. This is also found in mouthwashes, some medicines, and household products. Poisoning happens when you drink too much ethyl alcohol in a short space of time. Other kinds of alcohol that you might have around the house, such as isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and methanol (wood alcohol), are toxic in a different way.
Binge drinking is a major cause of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is defined as drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher.
For a man, binge drinking is when you have five or more drinks in less than 2 hours. For a woman, it's four or more drinks in the same time frame. "Extreme" binge drinking involves double these amounts. Teens and college-age adults are most likely to engage in binge drinking.
One drink is:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces (shot) of 80-proof liquor (gin, rum, whiskey, etc.), which is 40% alcohol
- 1.5 ounces (jigger) of brandy or cognac (40% alcohol)
A mixed drink or cocktail could have more than one serving of alcohol in it.
You can drink a fatal amount of alcohol before you pass out. Even if you're unconscious, your stomach and intestines continue to release alcohol into your bloodstream, increasing the level of alcohol in your body.
Alcohol Poisoning Risks
Although young people are most likely to engage in binge drinking, deaths from alcohol poisoning usually involve men between the ages of 35 and 64, according to the CDC. Men tend to drink more than women. And middle-aged people are more likely than younger ones to take prescription drugs, which can increase the severity of alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning can depend on things such as:
- Your size or weight
- Your overall health
- Your alcohol tolerance
- How recently you ate food
- Whether you're taking drugs
- How much and how fast you drink
- How much alcohol is in your drink
Emergency Action for Alcohol Poisoning
If you think someone you're with has alcohol poisoning, take these steps:
- Call 911 right away.
- Don’t leave the person alone.
- Try to keep them awake and seated upright.
- Have them sip water if they’re awake.
- Cover them with a warm blanket.
- If they’re passed out, get them onto their side to keep them from choking on vomit.
- Tell the paramedics about their symptoms and how much they drank.
Alcohol Poisoning Diagnosis
Your doctor can diagnose alcohol poisoning based on your symptoms. They’ll also order blood and urine tests to check your alcohol levels. Your blood will be checked for its BAC.
Alcohol Poisoning Treatment
If you’ve drunk a dangerous amount of alcohol, doctors may "pump" your stomach. This keeps any leftover alcohol from getting into your bloodstream.
At the hospital, they may also:
Alcohol Poisoning Prevention
If you’re going to drink alcohol, keep these tips in mind to avoid alcohol poisoning:
- Drink in moderation. It’s best for men to have no more than two drinks a day and for women to have only one.
- Alternate alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic ones, ideally water.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food slows down the absorption of alcohol to some extent, though it can't prevent alcohol poisoning if you're drinking a lot.
- Don’t drink while you’re taking prescription medications or other drugs. Some drugs interact badly with alcohol.
- Don’t play drinking games or use funnels or beer bongs.
- Store alcohol safely. If you have small kids, keep products containing alcohol (such as mouthwashes and cold medicines) out of their reach. If you have teens, consider locking up your liquor cabinet.
Alcohol Poisoning Myths
The following things don't help reverse alcohol poisoning. In fact, they may make the effects worse:
- A cold shower can lower body temperature.
- Eating food can cause vomiting or choking.
- Black coffee or another drink with caffeine may make you feel alert, but it doesn't reduce the blood alcohol concentration or sober you up.
- Trying to "walk it off" could lead to a fall.
- Trying to throw up could cause choking.
Alcohol poisoning happens when there’s too much alcohol in your blood, and parts of your brain shut down. It's caused usually by binge drinking and can lead to death or brain damage. If you see signs of alcohol poisoning, such as throwing up, seizures, slow breathing, or severe confusion, don't hesitate to call 911. This is a serious matter.
Alcohol Poisoning FAQs
What is the best thing to do if you have alcohol poisoning?
Call 911 right away. Don't assume you can sleep it off or that you'll be OK in the morning. And stay awake until you get help. If you can't sit up, lie on your side to prevent choking on your vomit.
What's the difference between being drunk and alcohol poisoning?
Someone who is “just drunk” will be slurring their words, stumbling around, and acting drowsy. Someone with alcohol poisoning will be breathing slowly or irregularly, have cold skin, be vomiting a lot, and perhaps have a seizure or lose consciousness. A drunk person can recover with rest, fluids, and eating a balanced meal, while a person with alcohol poisoning needs to go to the hospital and get an IV or maybe their stomach pumped. If you're not sure what stage a friend is at, call 911. In the U.S., paramedics don't charge for a visit unless the person needs to go to the hospital.