Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Last Updated: February 1, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Many risks surround alcohol use, including alcoholism and a wide range of health concerns. However, the most dangerous acute condition is alcohol poisoning. Thousands of people in the U.S. die due to alcohol overdose each year. If you or someone you love drinks alcohol, it’s important to understand how alcohol poisoning happens and what to do if it occurs.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream is so high that it interferes with the brain’s ability to control basic life support functions. Alcohol affects GABA receptors in the brain and slows down the neurological system’s normal function. This can create a “buzzed” feeling in low doses but can be fatal in high doses.

A blood alcohol content (BAC) above 0.40% causes a risk of death or coma in most people. However, depending on the person, a lower BAC can also be dangerous. For example, some people may face life-threatening risks at a 0.30% BAC. 

People who used to drink heavily but stopped are particularly at risk for alcohol poisoning if they begin drinking again. Because they will no longer have a high tolerance for alcohol, drinking the same amount they did before getting sober can easily lead to an overdose.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream is so high that it interferes with the brain’s ability to control basic functions of life support. Alcohol affects GABA receptors in the brain and slows down the neurological system’s normal function. This can create a “buzzed” feeling in low doses, but in high doses, it can be fatal.

A blood alcohol content (BAC) above 0.40% causes a risk of death or coma in most people. Depending on the person, however, a lower BAC can also be dangerous. For example, some groups may face life-threatening risks at a 0.30% BAC. 

People who used to drink heavily but stopped are particularly at risk for alcohol poisoning if they begin drinking again. Because they will no longer have a high tolerance for alcohol, drinking the same amount they did before getting sober can easily lead to an overdose. 

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

If you or someone around you is drinking heavy amounts of alcohol, it is important to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning quickly. The symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Inability to wake up
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Dulled responses
  • Low body temperature
  • Bluish skin color or paleness

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of alcohol poisoning often include seizures, slow or irregular breathing, hypothermia or low body temperature, bluish or pale skin and unconsciousness. One alarming sign of alcohol poisoning is when someone remains unresponsive even when touched or talked to. If physical signs of alcohol poisoning are present, call 911 immediately and begin first aid.

Mental Symptoms

Mental symptoms do not typically occur with alcohol poisoning. Periods of memory loss may occur; however, the decreased consciousness caused by alcohol poisoning does not allow for many mental symptoms. As someone’s alcohol levels approach a toxic quantity, they may display some mental symptoms such as erratic behavior, poor judgment and impaired decision-making.

Long-Term Effects

The long-term effects of alcohol poisoning can be severe and sometimes permanent. The most permanent potential effect is death. Even if someone is successfully treated, a prolonged period without oxygen can cause lasting brain damage that can be debilitating and permanent. If alcohol poisoning is quickly recognized, it may be possible to avoid any long-term effects.

If you or someone you are with is experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning, immediately seek emergency medical care.

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is caused almost exclusively by drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short time. The high levels of alcohol disrupt basic life-support functions like breathing, heart rate and temperature control. This can lead to serious health issues, such as: 

  • Seizures
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Hypothermia
  • Coma 
  • Death

Blood-Alcohol Content

Blood-alcohol content (BAC) refers to the amount of alcohol present in your bloodstream and is typically measured as a percentage. For instance, a BAC of 0.08%, the legal limit for driving in many countries, means that 0.08% of your blood is alcohol. When your BAC rises too high, it can impair the functions of your brain and body, potentially leading to alcohol poisoning.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings a person’s BAC to 0.08% or above. For men, this typically happens when they consume five or more drinks, and for women, four or more drinks in about two hours. This high-intensity drinking can lead to a rapid increase in BAC and put you at risk for alcohol poisoning.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Determining how much alcohol differs significantly based on the individual. Your weight, health, food intake, gender and alcohol tolerance play a role. For most people, a BAC of 0.40% or more creates a risk of deadly alcohol poisoning; however, this level can be significantly lower for some.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Poisoning

Size and Weight

Your body size and weight can greatly impact how much alcohol is absorbed and how quickly it is metabolized in your body. Generally, smaller people feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than larger people because their bodies have less volume to dilute the alcohol.

Gender

Women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men. They also tend to have smaller frames than men. This means that if a man and woman drink equal amounts of alcohol, the woman will likely experience a more rapid increase in her BAC and will have a higher peak BAC than the male.

Overall Health

A person’s overall health plays a crucial role in determining their risk of alcohol poisoning. Those with certain medical conditions or taking certain medications might process alcohol slower or differently, leading to higher alcohol concentrations in the body and an increased risk of alcohol poisoning. If you take medication or have health problems, consult your doctor to determine your individualized risks when using alcohol.

Food Intake

Eating before or while consuming alcohol can slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. This is because food in the stomach can act as a barrier to alcohol absorption, reducing the immediate impact of alcohol and potentially lowering the risk of alcohol poisoning. However, it is important to note that having food in your stomach could also delay the onset of alcohol poisoning, depending on the circumstances.

Alcohol Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance refers to how accustomed a person’s body is to the effects of alcohol. People who drink regularly may develop a higher tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need to drink more to feel the same effects. However, it’s important to note that even though they may not feel as impaired, their BAC can still reach dangerous levels, increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning. 

Tolerance is particularly dangerous when someone with a tolerance has a period of sobriety and then resumes using alcohol. Their body is unable to tolerate the same level of alcohol use, and the risk of alcohol poisoning substantially increases if they drink like they used to.

Alcohol Content

The alcohol content of the beverages consumed can also influence the risk of alcohol poisoning. Drinks with a higher alcohol content will raise the BAC more quickly than drinks with lower alcohol content. This is why it’s important to be aware of the alcohol content in your beverages and avoid binge drinking using high-proof alcohol.

Alcohol Consumption Rate

The rate at which you consume alcohol can also greatly influence your risk of alcohol poisoning. Quickly drinking large quantities of alcohol can overwhelm the body’s ability to process and eliminate the alcohol, leading to a rapid rise in BAC and increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning.

Diagnosing Alcohol Poisoning

Because alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening, it is important to recognize when it occurs.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning is the first step to getting help. Someone will likely be unable to recognize these symptoms in themselves, and it will typically be those around them who notice them. It’s crucial to seek immediate medical attention if someone is showing signs of alcohol poisoning. Symptoms may include: 

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Blue-tinged or pale skin
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Unconsciousness
  • Inability to wake up 

Medical Assessment

A medical assessment for alcohol poisoning requires the knowledge and expertise of a licensed healthcare professional. It typically involves a physical examination and gathering information about the person’s alcohol consumption. Blood tests may also be conducted to determine the individual’s BAC. Other tests may be necessary to check for potential complications such as hypothermia, low blood sugar or other substance use. Providing accurate information to healthcare professionals is crucial to ensure appropriate and timely treatment.

Treating Alcohol Poisoning

Treatment for alcohol poisoning will differ for each person, and doctors and nurses in a hospital should plan and provide it. If someone you are with experiences alcohol poisoning symptoms, immediately call 911 and stay with them until help arrives. Treatment will typically involve treating symptoms while the person metabolizes the alcohol.

How To Treat Alcohol Poisoning at Home

The only time you should ever treat alcohol poisoning at home is if you are taking care of someone while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Alcohol poisoning is likely to be fatal if not treated correctly, so you should always call emergency services for immediate medical treatment. 

After calling 911, you may need to provide mouth-to-mouth or CPR if the person is not breathing adequately or does not have a pulse. If the person is still breathing, you should position them on their side to ensure any vomit does not clog their airway. Continue to monitor their breathing and pulse until an ambulance arrives. In most cases, it is not advisable to transport an alcohol poisoning victim yourself, as they may develop life-threatening problems on the way to the hospital.

Medical Treatment and Procedures

Medical treatment for alcohol poisoning involves stabilization and supportive care at a hospital or medical facility. Hospital staff will closely monitor vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. They may use intravenous fluids to hydrate the person, medications to control symptoms like seizures and agitation, and in severe cases, a tube may be inserted into the windpipe to help with breathing. The goal is to manage the critical symptoms and stabilize the patient’s body while it metabolizes and clears the alcohol from its system.

Ongoing Care and Recovery

Recovery from alcohol poisoning doesn’t necessarily end when someone is discharged from the hospital. Depending on the severity, there may be physical and mental health effects. It’s important to follow the advice of healthcare professionals for ongoing care, including attending any follow-up appointments. 

Because alcohol poisoning can be fatal, those who survive it should consider getting professional help, particularly if the alcohol poisoning results from alcohol addiction or misuse. Professional detox and rehab programs can help people overcome addictions and could even save their lives by preventing alcohol poisoning in the future.

Preventing Alcohol Poisoning

By far, it is better to prevent alcohol poisoning than it is to have to treat it. Preventing alcohol poisoning should ultimately be anyone’s goal.

Understand Your Limits

Preventing alcohol poisoning starts with understanding your limits. Everyone metabolizes alcohol differently based on factors like size, weight, gender, age and overall health. What is safe for someone else may not necessarily be for you. Understand your body’s tolerance to alcohol and recognize when you’ve had enough. Learn to listen to your body’s signals and stop drinking before reaching a state of impairment or risk.

Drink Safely

Safe drinking practices are another essential aspect of preventing alcohol poisoning. This includes not drinking on an empty stomach, as food helps slow the absorption of alcohol in your bloodstream. Also, try to avoid drinking alcohol too quickly or consuming large amounts of high-alcohol-content beverages. Mixing alcohol with drugs or medication can also increase the risk of alcohol poisoning, so always be aware of potential interactions. 

Ultimately, you should avoid getting close to the maximum amount you can handle. Getting close to the boundaries can be dangerous, and staying under what you think you can handle is always safer.

Moderate Your Consumption

Moderation is the key to preventing alcohol poisoning. It’s important to understand that excessive drinking can have serious health consequences. Follow guidelines for moderate drinking, which for men is typically up to two drinks per day, and for women, up to one drink per day. Avoid participating in drinking games or contests that can rapidly increase your blood alcohol concentration.

If you want to maintain moderate consumption but keep going over what you intended to drink, it may indicate an alcohol addiction. If this is the case, you should consider trying to stop using alcohol altogether.

Alcohol Poisoning Fatalities

Each year, thousands of people die from alcohol poisoning worldwide. These fatalities are entirely preventable with responsible drinking practices and a greater understanding of the dangers of alcohol misuse. Some crucial statistics on alcohol poisoning include:

  • Six people die each day from alcohol poisoning in the U.S.
  • Three in four deaths are in adults aged 35–64
  • Of those who die from alcohol poisoning, 76% are men.

It’s crucial to be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning and take immediate action to prevent a potential tragedy.

Seek Help for Alcohol Misuse

Alcohol poisoning is just one of the many dangers associated with alcohol use. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol misuse and addiction, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help. Contact us today to learn about alcohol addiction treatment programs and recovery resources that can help you achieve lasting sobriety.

Common Questions on Alcohol Poisoning

Can you overdose on alcohol?

It’s possible to overdose on alcohol, which can be fatal. Alcohol overdose is also referred to as alcohol poisoning, and data shows that an average of six people die each day because of it. Around 76% of those who overdose on alcohol are aged 35–64, and about three in four people who die from alcohol poisoning are male.

How long does alcohol poisoning last?

Alcohol poisoning can be fatal, so in one way, it can last forever. If you recover, alcohol poisoning will typically resolve within 24 hours. The long-term effects of alcohol poisoning, such as going without oxygen to your brain for long periods, can create life-long disabilities. 

When should I go to the hospital for alcohol poisoning?

If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, you should seek help immediately. Don’t wait for it to get worse because it probably will. Alcohol poisoning kills, and waiting to get help is how it ultimately becomes fatal.

Can alcohol poisoning cause permanent damage?

Yes, alcohol poisoning can cause permanent damage. While death is the most permanent form of damage, it can also cause a prolonged period without oxygen to the brain. This can lead to permanent brain damage that lasts throughout someone’s entire life.

Will alcohol poisoning just go away on its own?

Yes, but it may kill you before it does. Alcohol poisoning will go away as your body metabolizes alcohol, but it can stop your breathing and have serious effects while your body slowly gets rid of alcohol. Medical treatment is necessary to treat these serious symptoms while the body slowly and naturally eliminates alcohol from your bloodstream.

What should I do if I suspect someone has alcohol poisoning?

You should immediately call 911 and then give first aid treatment. This may require mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR if the heart has stopped. Lie them on their side until help arrives if they are still breathing. Do not try to treat alcohol poisoning yourself, as this can result in death.

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