Alcohol Poisoning – Causes, Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment

Alcohol is the most popular drug of choice among Americans. This is in part due to its availability and partly due to the big role it plays in everyday culture, celebrations, ceremonies, and religious rituals. A large part of the US population consumes alcohol; with roughly 85% of Americans reporting consuming alcohol during their lifetime, while almost 70% drank alcohol in the past year.1

Most of us come into daily contact with alcohol, however, not all people who drink meet the criteria for alcoholism, or as it’s medically known, alcohol use disorder (AUD). Individuals who are unable to limit the amount of alcohol they consume are diagnosed with AUD. It is a stubborn issue, but people can achieve full recovery with the help of medical professionals and modern medical advances.2

Even though alcohol use disorder is caused by mental health issues, it has serious repercussions for people’s physical health as well. One of the most dangerous outcomes of too much drinking is alcohol poisoning, which can cause lasting health problems and even result in a deathly outcome in case of an alcohol overdose. Alcohol poisoning can happen to everyone and not only to people who struggle with alcohol use disorder.3

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning happens when people consume more alcohol than their body can process. Since the human body is generally good at processing alcohol, alcohol poisoning may happen when an individual consumes large amounts of alcohol within a short period. Excessive amounts of alcohol enter the bloodstream, which then transfers it to all parts of the body including the brain.4

Once the brain gets saturated with alcohol, it becomes unable to perform basic bodily functions like body temperature regulation, consistent breathing, gag reflex, and steady heart rate. At this point, people are in danger of losing consciousness or passing out. Given that alcohol dulls the gag reflex, passing out is extremely dangerous since people can choke on their vomit and die from asphyxiation.3

According to CDC’s Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI) application, approximately 20,000 people died every year during the 2015-2019 period from alcohol-related poisoning. Out of those 20,000 deaths per year, 2346 on average were caused by direct poisoning from consuming too much alcohol. Almost 70% of all deaths were non-Hispanic white males, with the 45-54 age group being particularly vulnerable. More than a third of all deaths (34%) occurred within this age group.5, 6

How Much Alcohol Do You Have to Drink to Be Poisoned?

In addition to heavy and long-term drinkers who’ve developed alcohol tolerance that makes them consume a large amount of alcohol, people who are most in danger of alcohol poisoning are those who engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking implies consuming 5 or more standard drinks within 2 hours in the case of men, and 4 or more standard drinks in the case of women.7

A standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol or the equivalent of what is found in:8

  • 12 ounces of regular 5% alcoholic beer
  • 8-10 ounces of 7% alcohol-flavored malt
  • 5 ounces of 12% alcohol wine
  • 2-3 ounces of 24% alcohol liqueur or aperitif
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled 40% alcohol spirits

The level of alcohol intoxication is measured by Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level. BAC shows the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood. Drinking 2 standard drinks will result in mild impairment and roughly 0.05 BAC in males and 0.07 BAC in females. When the BAC level reaches 0.3, people are in danger of alcohol poisoning. While the relationship between BAC levels and alcohol poisoning is complex and dependent on several factors, people with BAC levels of 0.4 and more may end up in a coma or die from an alcohol overdose.9

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

The way people react to alcohol is highly individualized. Some people can function and perform certain tasks while heavily intoxicated, while others may start feeling sick and vomit or pass out before they consume dangerous amounts of alcohol. There are various factors that influence how well people handle their drinks, such as age, sex, body weight, overall health, and level of experience and tolerance.10

Due to the highly individualized way people respond to alcohol, signs and symptoms may vary from one person to the next. However, alcohol poisoning symptoms mustn’t be underestimated because they can easily lead to complications and death from alcohol overdose. For this reason, it’s very important to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning and react quickly by calling for help.3

If you’ve had a few drinks or are in the company of people who consumed alcohol, keep an eye on the following signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning to avoid unwanted and dangerous consequences:3

  • Signs of mental confusion, numbness, or stupor
  • Profuse vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Unresponsiveness or inability to remain conscious
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature
  • The body looks blue, pale, or sweaty
  • Slow heart rate

How To Tell If You Have Alcohol Poisoning?

Besides the danger signs and symptoms outlined above, alcohol poisoning can be detected using various testing methods. The definitive diagnosis of alcohol poisoning is based on the detection of the presence of alcohol in the blood. Early diagnosis is very important because a swift reaction can prevent complications caused by alcohol poisoning and in extreme cases save people’s lives.11

There are several types of tests that can detect the level of alcohol intoxication. Blood tests can be used up to 10-12 hours after the last drink, but they achieve the highest level of accuracy within 6 hours of drinking. Although blood tests are the most common and well-known, other types of tests can detect alcohol for longer periods.9

Modern urine alcohol tests can detect alcohol up to 72 hours after drinking, however, they are less accurate when we have to measure the actual real-time BAC. This is because alcohol concentration in the urine lags behind the alcohol concentration in blood since a certain time is needed for the body to process and metabolize the drinks consumed. The table below shows different types of blood tests and their reliability timeframe.12

What are the Risks of Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is also called alcohol overdose and its biggest risk is an unfortunate deathly outcome. In addition to this worst-case scenario, another major issue is coma. Consuming large amounts of alcohol can cause parts of the brain to shut down, which may result in a coma and the inability to regain consciousness. This is why it’s highly recommended that people who are suffering from heavy alcohol intoxication should not be allowed to fall asleep.13

Another dangerous issue related to losing consciousness from alcohol intoxication is the danger of dying from a lack of oxygen or asphyxiation. People who are heavily drunk lose their gag reflex, which is dangerous especially once they pass out. Without the gag reflex, the body loses its automatic mechanism of ejecting vomit and people run the risk of choking because the vomit stays in their mouth clogging the airflow.3

Besides these extreme outcomes, an alcohol overdose can lead to dehydration, seizures, blackouts, irreparable liver damage, heart failure, and permanent brain impairment. An easy way to find out more about alcohol-related topics is to call a confidential alcohol abuse hotline service. Hotlines are staffed with knowledgeable and compassionate administrators who are equipped to answer all your questions about AUD, different types of treatment, health insurance, and the costs of finding professional help for alcoholism.3

How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?

There is no easy way to know how long the effects of alcohol poisoning will last. As we outlined before, the way people respond to alcohol differs depending on several factors. Even though each person reacts differently to intoxication, the body’s ability to process alcohol is pretty consistent and won’t depend on the above-mentioned factors. The human body processes alcohol at roughly one standard drink per hour.14

This is why the speed of drinking matters. People who consume a lot of beverages in a short space of time don’t give their body enough time to deal with the amount of alcohol that entered the bloodstream. BAC usually peaks around 30 to 40 minutes since the last drink was consumed. This can be dangerous because people may continue drinking before they become aware of how intoxicated they really are.15

Since alcohol concentration peaks well after the last drink, people may pass out before their BAC levels reach their ultimate value, which is why it’s not uncommon for people to wake up even drunker than they were when they passed out. If a person is showing symptoms of severe impairment or any of the dangerous signs of alcohol poisoning, it’s best to stay on the side of caution and call for help before it’s too late.15

How Do You Prevent Alcohol Poisoning?

The best advice for people who don’t want to risk their health from alcohol-related issues including alcohol poisoning is to avoid drinking alcohol. If this is not an option, the next best thing to do would be to limit the number of drinks consumed. If you decide on a drink or two, remember to avoid drinking unknown alcoholic beverages or ones with unspecified alcohol content. Don’t mix alcohol and caffeine because it can mask the true level of your intoxication.4

Unless you are using certain medications, like opioids or over-the-counter antihistamines, and you don’t suffer from chronic medical conditions, having one or two standard drinks probably won’t get you in trouble. However, anything more than this can be dangerous. Once you consume a couple of drinks, your inhibition drops, and your decision-making capabilities diminish. It’s important to avoid binge drinking because this puts you in a dangerous and unpredictable territory.3

How to Treat Alcohol Poisoning?

People who are suffering from alcohol poisoning need to be taken to a hospital or an emergency care unit as soon as possible. Once the person is safely and swiftly transferred to a hospital or an ER, healthcare professionals will quickly assess their medical status, including the history of alcohol use and the presence of other substances that might interfere with their clinical condition.16

Medical professionals have several lifesaving treatments at their disposal inside a medical setting that they can use to stabilize the patient and prevent serious repercussions and a deadly outcome. These procedures include:14

  • Provision of IV fluids – They help rehydrate the patients because alcohol intoxication is one of the fastest ways to dehydrate the body. IV fluids also contain necessary nutrients including saline and glucose, i.e. salt and sugar.
  • Oxygen therapy or intubation – Patients are given oxygen through a flexible tube clipped attached to the nose called a nasal cannula. In some cases, they may need to install a small tube into the windpipe if the patient is unable to breathe.
  • Stomach pumping – Some patients will have to have their stomachs pumped. This is done with the help of a tube in case medical professionals need to eliminate harmful toxins from the stomach.
  • Blood filtration – In some cases, the intoxication is so severe and damaging that the patient is experiencing renal failure. This means that the kidneys are unable to filter the alcohol from the blood and that the patient requires dialysis.

Once the patients are stabilized, they should start seriously thinking about contacting professional help for alcohol use disorder. While people who seldom or never drink can experience alcohol poisoning, it usually occurs to people who already have AUD or are approaching the critical threshold when they should confront their drinking habits.2

There are several proven ways to overcome alcohol addiction with the help of medical procedures that have been developed over the years. People today have the possibility of choosing a personalized treatment plan that is tailored according to their medical condition and individual needs. The best modern programs combine FDA-approved medication with some form of behavioral therapy that helps people live healthy and alcohol-free life after treatment.17

Frequently Asked Questions