Alcohol Poisoning

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is when there’s too much alcohol in your blood, and it causes parts of your brain to shut down. It’s also called alcohol overdose.

Alcohol is a depressant. That means it can affect your brain and nervous system to slow your breathing, your heart rate, and other important tasks that your body does.

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.

Alcohol Poisoning Signs and Symptoms

Some symptoms start mild and grow worse. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Smelling like alcohol
  • Confusion or slurred speech
  • Poor coordination or stumbling
  • Damp or clammy skin

Some symptoms of alcohol poisoning are more serious. These include:

  • Severe confusion
  • Trouble staying awake
  • Throwing up
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Long pauses between breaths (10 seconds or more)
  • Very slow heartbeat
  • Low body temperature
  • Bluish or pale skin
  • Slow responses (such as gag reflex)

Alcohol Poisoning Complications

In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can cause problems like:

Alcohol Poisoning Causes

Alcoholic drinks contain a form of alcohol known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol. That’s what causes alcohol poisoning. Other kinds that you might have around the house, like isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and methanol (wood alcohol), are toxic in a different way.

Binge drinking is a major cause of alcohol poisoning. For a man, binge drinking is when you have five or more drinks in less than 2 hours. For a woman, it's four drinks in that same amount of time. "Extreme" binge drinking is double those amounts.

One drink is:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor

 

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Alcohol Poisoning Risk Factors

Men and middle-age adults have the highest odds of getting alcohol poisoning. Men tend to drink more than women. And middle-age people are more likely than younger ones to take prescription drugs, which can make you more likely to get alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning can also depend on things like:

  • 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 sitting 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.

Don’t do these things. They may do more harm than good:

  • Giving the person a cold shower, which can lower their body temperature
  • Giving them food, which can cause vomiting or choking
  • Trying to have them "walk it off," which could lead to a fall
  • Trying to make them throw up, as this can cause choking

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.

 

Alcohol Poisoning Treatment

If you’ve drunk dangerous amounts of alcohol, doctors may "pump" your stomach. This keeps any leftover alcohol from getting into your bloodstream.

At the hospital, they may also:

  • Give you fluids through an IV
  • Give you extra oxygen to help you breathe
  • Flush your stomach of toxins
  • Remove toxins from your blood

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.
  • Don’t drink while you’re taking prescription medications or other drugs.
  • Don’t play drinking games or use funnels or beer bongs.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella on March 20, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: "Alcohol Poisoning," "Alcohol Poisoning Prevention," "Alcohol Poisoning: Management and Treatment."

Mayo Clinic. "Alcohol poisoning," "Alcohol use disorder."

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose."

Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs: “Alcohol poisoning or overdose.”

University of Washington: “Alcohol Poisoning.”

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