What Are the Risks of Alcohol Poisoning?
Excessive drinking can have very serious repercussions that go far beyond a bad hangover. Severe alcohol intoxication, or alcohol poisoning, can result in seizures, brain damage, and death and typically requires immediate medical attention.1
What Constitutes an Alcohol Overdose?
Alcohol poisoning (alcohol overdose) occurs when so much alcohol is in the bloodstream that the body becomes overwhelmed and areas of the brain that control vital functions (such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature) begin to shut down.1
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:1
- Severe confusion/stupor.
- Irregular (10 or more seconds between breaths) or slow (fewer than 8 breaths/min) respiration.
- Slow pulse.
- Low body temperature with bluish, pale skin or lips and clammy skin.
- Dulled gag reflex (a choking risk when vomiting).
- Difficulty staying conscious or inability to waken if passed out.
How Does Alcohol Poisoning Happen?
Anyone that drinks more than their body can tolerate is at risk for alcohol poisoning. People that engage in episodes of binge drinking are especially vulnerable to overdose.
Binge drinking is defined as consuming 4 or more drinks within 2 hours for women and 5 or more drinks within 2 hours for men.2,3
But just what is one drink? Although most people are aware of the dangers of having too many drinks, it can be difficult to know offhand exactly what constitutes one serving size. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol defines one drink/standard serving for each type of alcohol:4
- Beer (5.2% alcohol): 12 ounces.
- Malt liquor (7% alcohol): 8-9 oz.
- Wine (12% alcohol): 5 ounces.
- Hard liquor (40% alcohol): 1.5 ounces.
Many alcoholic drinks purchased in restaurants or bars contain more than one standard serving, so it’s easy to quickly become more intoxicated than you might expect. For example, you may think ‘I only had 2 glasses of wine’ but not realize that the pours you received actually amounted to 3 servings.
The effects of even mild alcohol intoxication can also contribute to continued overdrinking. Impaired judgment and reduced inhibitions may lead someone to drink more than they intended.5
Keep in mind that it takes time for the body to process alcohol into the bloodstream, which means that BAC levels continue to rise even after a person stops drinking. This means that alcohol poisoning is still a risk if someone isn’t displaying symptoms immediately after their last drink or if they’ve passed out. This is why it’s dangerous to leave someone who has had a lot to drink and has passed out unconscious to just “sleep it off.” 1
How to Help a Person Experiencing Alcohol Poisoning
If you believe an individual is experiencing alcohol poisoning and would benefit from medical attention, take the following precautions:1
- Call 911.
- Stay with the person until emergency help arrives.
- Keep the person sitting (or partially upright) on the ground and lean them forward or turn their head to the side. (The dulled gag reflex common to alcohol overdose increases the risk of choking or breathing in vomit should the person throw up.)
- If they are passed out unconscious or lying down, roll them onto one side with an ear toward the ground.
- Be prepared to give emergency responders information about their alcohol consumption, any other drug or medication use, and any underlying medical problems you’re aware of.
What NOT to Do When Someone Has Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
If someone is showing signs that they might be overdosing on alcohol, DO NOT:1
- Leave them alone.
- Leave them to sleep it off if they’ve passed out or lost consciousness.
- Give them coffee or have them take a cold shower. (Neither will help and both can worsen symptoms.)
- Lay them on their back.
- Help them “walk it off.” (This can lead to falls or other injuries.)
- Wait to see if their condition gets worse.
Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
Emergency care for severe alcohol poisoning or overdose is supportive and designed to help manage symptoms and avoid further complications. This may include:1,6
- Management of any breathing issues.
- Intravenous fluids to address dehydration.
- Glucose administration for low blood sugar.
- Flushing toxins in the stomach (rarely used, and generally for only extreme cases or when other drug ingestion is suspected).
Hospital staff may also screen the individual for alcohol use problems, including alcohol use disorders, and provide recommendations or referrals for substance use treatment once the person is healthy enough to return home.7