Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention
Last Updated: September 8, 2023
Drinking too much or drinking while taking substances can lead to alcohol poisoning. It is important to find medical help during alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone has too much alcohol in their bloodstream at one time, causing unhealthy and potentially life-threatening effects. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and should be treated in a hospital where the necessary treatment can be provided.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning, also called alcohol overdose, is a condition that occurs when alcohol is present in your bloodstream in such high quantities that it affects your brain’s ability to perform life-sustaining functions. This can include your ability to breathe, regulate body temperature and even maintain a normal heartbeat.
Alcohol Poisoning Causes
Alcohol poisoning is caused by high levels of alcohol in your blood. This is typically due to binge drinking, which involves drinking a large quantity of alcohol within a short time. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks at one time for men or four or more at one time for women. The amount of alcohol in your blood can also be artificially elevated if you drink while not able to metabolize alcohol as rapidly as you normally can. This can occur when you are drinking while taking medicines or while using recreational drugs.
Alcohol is measured in your blood as blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the percentage of your blood that is alcohol. A BAC of 0.08 means that 0.08% of your blood is alcohol. 0.08 is the legal limit; anyone at or above this level is considered legally impaired. The exact BAC considered alcohol poisoning will vary for everyone; however, a BAC of 0.25 or above is generally considered to be the range in which alcohol poisoning occurs.
Alcohol Poisoning Signs & Symptoms
Alcohol poisoning can cause several different signs and symptoms. It is important to be aware of these signs, as it can help you detect when someone needs medical assistance. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Difficulty or inability to speak
- Poor coordination
- Inability to walk or hold things
- Being incontinent of urine or stool
- Skin that is pale, blue or purple-tinged
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Being difficult or impossible to wake
- Going into cardiac arrest
Anyone exhibiting these symptoms should immediately get medical help, as delay in care can be fatal.
When To Seek Medical Help for Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning can progress quickly and become fatal. Someone who has any signs of alcohol poisoning should immediately seek medical help. Often, the person overdosing on alcohol is unable to help themselves. Those seeking help will typically be friends who are with them, not the individual themself.
What To Do for Alcohol Poisoning While Awaiting Medical Assistance
If you are with someone who may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, there are several things you should do:
- Call 911 immediately so that help will be on its way
- Keep the person awake and positioned so they will not choke if they vomit
- If keeping the person conscious is not possible, lay them on their side so that vomit will not obstruct their airway
- Keep the person overdosing in a safe area, away from any potential hazards
- Consider covering them with blankets or clothing if they seem cool to the touch or if they are exposed to cold
- If the person stops breathing or goes into cardiac arrest, give CPR if you are able
Alcohol Poisoning Treatment
Alcohol poisoning treatment requires care that only a hospital can provide. There is nothing to reverse the effects of alcohol. Hospitals will treat symptoms that develop and allow the alcohol to metabolize. For example, if alcohol poisoning affects someone’s breathing, a hospital may place them on a life-support machine that can breathe for them.
How To Treat Alcohol Poisoning at Home
There is never any circumstance in which you should try to treat alcohol poisoning at home. Alcohol poisoning kills six people a day and is very dangerous. Delaying treatment is always dangerous. Additionally, most states have laws in place to prevent legal consequences if you are using alcohol or other substances illegally if you are seeking medical treatment for yourself or another person. You should always seek medical help whenever alcohol poisoning is suspected and never treat it at home or wait to see what happens.
Hospital Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
Hospital treatment for alcohol poisoning will typically depend on symptoms that develop. Often, IV fluids and IV vitamins will be given to help the person overdosing better cope with the strain of withdrawal. A breathing machine called a ventilator will be used for those unable to breathe for themselves adequately. Hospitals may also use body heating systems for those who cannot regulate their own body temperature.
Alcohol Poisoning Medications
Medications are typically only used to treat symptoms that develop because of alcohol poisoning and are not generally used to treat alcohol poisoning itself. IV fluids, electrolytes and vitamins are often given as a supportive measure. Medications like benzodiazepines and anticonvulsants may be given if seizures develop, as is common with alcohol poisoning. Almost every medication given for alcohol poisoning can only be given in a hospital, making it important to seek emergency medical care when alcohol poisoning does occur.
Alcohol Poisoning Prevention
The best way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to avoid drinking alcohol heavily. The more you drink in a single sitting, the more likely you are to experience alcohol poisoning. Some tips for preventing alcohol poisoning include:
- Count how many drinks you’ve had: It can be easy to lose track; counting will help you avoid overindulging.
- Only drink after eating: Having food in your stomach helps alcohol to absorb more slowly and reduces the risk of an overdose.
- Drink low-proof alcohol: Less-concentrated alcoholic drinks will fill you up faster and reduce your alcohol intake, helping to lower your risk of overdosing.
- Be accountable: Have a plan for how much you will drink and have someone who will keep you on track with that plan.
- Don’t mix alcohol and medicines: Medicine can slow how quickly your body processes alcohol, leading to increased levels of alcohol in your blood.
- Stop using alcohol: If you have problems with drinking too much alcohol, you may have an addiction and might need to consider stopping alcohol altogether.
Seek Professional Help for Alcohol Addiction & Abuse
Alcohol poisoning is a clear and obvious sign that you are overdoing your alcohol use. It can often indicate that you no longer control alcohol; it controls you. If you have overdosed on alcohol or have come close, you should consider seeking professional help and an evaluation for potential alcohol addiction.
Stopping alcohol can seem scary, but compared to risking death from an alcohol overdose, it is clearly the best idea for someone with alcohol addiction. At The Recovery Village Atlanta, we understand how difficult overcoming addiction can be and how to help. Contact us today to learn how you can achieve lasting freedom from the dangerous risks of alcohol poisoning.
FAQs on Alcohol Poisoning
How do you get alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning occurs when you drink so much that the alcohol in your blood affects your brain’s ability to sustain life. You get alcohol poisoning by drinking a large amount of alcohol at one time or by drinking alcohol while your body’s metabolism is slow to process the alcohol you do drink.
How long does alcohol poisoning last?
Technically, alcohol poisoning only lasts until your body processes and eliminates most of the alcohol that was causing the alcohol poisoning. Dangerous symptoms that occur during alcohol poisoning, however, can last for years or even become permanent. For example, if alcohol poisoning makes you stop breathing and your brain goes without oxygen for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to lifelong brain damage long after your blood alcohol levels are back to normal.
Can you die from alcohol poisoning?
Yes, you can absolutely die from alcohol poisoning. Tens of thousands of people around the world do every year. If someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, they should receive immediate medical care in order to stay alive.
Start Your Recovery Today
Our Recovery Advocates are standing by to walk you through your treatment options and help you get your life back.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed August 10, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” January 2023. Accessed August 10, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Binge Drinking.” November 14, 2022. Accessed August 10, 2023.
University of Notre Dame. “Blood Alcohol Concentration.” 2023. Accessed August 10, 2023.
NHS. “Alcohol poisoning.” January 11, 2023. Accessed August 10, 2023.
Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “Alcohol poisoning or overdose.” 2023. Accessed August 10, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” January 6, 2015. Accessed August 10, 2023.