Alcohol Poisoning

If you've been around someone who's had too much to drink, you probably know the obvious symptoms, like slurred speech or poor coordination. Sometimes, though, you could be facing a serious health emergency. If you swallow a lot of alcohol in a short time, you might get alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol is a depressant. That means it can mess with your brain and nervous system in ways that slow down your breathing, heart rate, or other important tasks that your body does.

Your liver normally does a good job of stopping alcohol's toxins from getting into your bloodstream. But if you drink a lot of alcohol in a short span of time, your liver may not be able to keep up. This can lead to alcohol poisoning, also known as an alcohol overdose.

Symptoms

Some symptoms start out mild and grow worse. Signs that someone you're with may have alcohol poisoning are:

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

Some symptoms of alcohol poisoning are a bigger deal than others. Serious problems to watch for are:

  • Severe confusion or stupor
  • Not being able to stay 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

Complications

In more extreme cases, alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening. It can cause trouble, like:

The Role of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a major cause of alcohol poisoning. For a man, binge drinking is when you have 5 or more drinks in less than 2 hours. For a woman, it's 4 drinks in that same amount of time.

"Extreme" binge drinking is double those amounts.

What's a drink? The standard sizes and alcohol content are:

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

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What Raises Your Chances of Alcohol Poisoning?

Men and middle-aged adults are at greatest risk for alcohol poisoning. Why? Experts say men tend to drink more than women. And middle-aged people are more likely than younger folks to take prescription drugs, which can contribute to alcohol poisoning.

When you drink alcohol, your size and how much you weigh also play a role in your risk for alcohol poisoning. So do things like:

  • How recently you ate food
  • Whether you're taking drugs along with drinking
  • How much and how fast you drink

Emergency Action for Alcohol Poisoning

If you think someone you're with has alcohol poisoning, take these steps:

  • Call 911 right away.
  • Try to keep him awake and sitting upright.
  • Have him sip water if he's awake.
  • Cover him with a warm blanket.
  • If he's passed out, get him onto his side to prevent choking on vomit.
  • Get ready to tell the paramedics about his symptoms and how much he drank.

There are also some things not to do, since they may do more harm than good:

  • Don't give him a cold shower, which can cause severe coldness.
  • Don't give him food, which can cause vomiting or choking.
  • Don't try to have him "walk it off," which could lead to a fall.

Treatment

If someone you know has swallowed life-threatening amounts of alcohol, doctors may "pump" his stomach. They do this to keep any leftover alcohol from getting into his bloodstream.

At the hospital, doctors may also:

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

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on February 20, 2019

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."

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