Alcohol poisoning happens when a person consumes a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal and usually requires emergency medical treatment. If an overdose of alcohol is suspected, it is important to get help right away.
Alcohol poisoning is defined by a blood-alcohol level that is toxic or poisonous. Following consumption, alcohol is rapidly absorbed and enters the bloodstream. Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, which clears it from the bloodstream, making alcohol’s effects temporary. However, ingestion of too much alcohol too fast can overload the liver and lead to high levels of alcohol in the blood, which can be poisonous and affect basic life functions.
Article at a Glance:
- Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include disorientation, being unresponsive, and seizures.
- Call 911 if you suspect that a person has alcohol poisoning.
- People can choke on their own vomit if they have alcohol poisoning.
- Lay a person on his or her side, not on the back, if unconscious.
- Serious complications can occur is alcohol poisoning isn’t promptly treated.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
It is important to recognize how to tell if someone has alcohol poisoning so that they can get help. The common signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Extreme confusion
- Shallow, slow or irregular breathing
- Passing out
- Being unresponsive
- Low body temperature
- Pale or blue-ish looking skin
What to Do If Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning
If a person has signs of an alcohol overdose, it is important to get them help immediately. Even if they have stopped drinking, the effects of alcohol poisoning can get worse over the next few minutes to hours, as alcohol continues to be absorbed into their system.
Who to Contact
In the event that someone is showing signs of poisoning after alcohol consumption, call 9-1-1 first. You can also call alcohol hotlines like:
- The National Poison Control Center: 800-222-1222
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 800-662-HELP (4357)
What to Do Until Help Arrives
After contacting emergency services, there are several actions that can be done to assist a person with alcohol poisoning before help arrives:
- Stay with the person until help arrives
- Keep the person sitting up, preferably on the ground, to avoid falling
- Avoid having them lay down
- If the person is conscious, help them stay awake
- If the person is unconscious and is unable to sit upright, lay them on their side
- Be ready to provide the first responders with details known about the person and how much they drank
Alcohol Poisoning Tips
When taking care of someone who has alcohol poisoning, it is important to stay calm and remain with the person until help arrives. Here are some more detailed tips as to what you can do to help keep a person with alcohol poisoning safe until professional help arrives.
Helping Someone Vomit
A person with alcohol poisoning may vomit, which can be especially dangerous if they are laying down or are unaccompanied. There is a risk that a person with alcohol poisoning could choke on their own vomit because their gag reflexes can be inhibited by drinking too much.
Try to keep the person in a sitting position, with their airway free. If possible, have the person lean forward to avoid choking. Lying down, especially on their back, increases a person’s risk of choking on their vomit.
Do not force them to vomit. Vomiting can also lead to choking, even if the vomiting is expected.
Someone Who Is Unconscious
If a person is unconscious from drinking too much alcohol, lay them on their side with their ear to the ground so that their head is tilted to the side. This position will help prevent a person from choking if they vomit.
Stay with the person until help arrives. Never leave an unconscious person who might have alcohol poisoning alone.
Alcohol Poisoning Tall Tale Tips: Do They Work?
When it comes to tips on helping someone with alcohol poisoning, there is some advice that is not helpful. Here are some actions NOT to do, that may cause harm to someone with alcohol poisoning:
- Do not make them drink water: While drinking water will help with alcohol-induced dehydration, a person with alcohol poisoning could choke on the water if their gag reflex has been severely affected. It is better to keep their airway free and not give them anything to eat or drink.
- Do not have them drink caffeine: Like alcohol, caffeine leads to dehydration, which can make the symptoms of alcohol poisoning worse. Severe dehydration can lead to brain damage.
- Do not tell them to sleep it off: If a person with alcohol poisoning is left alone, there is a chance they could choke on their own vomit, stop breathing or go into cardiac arrest. It is important for someone to be there to monitor their health until help arrives.
- Do not leave them with a backpack on: This idea has been used by college students who reasoned that laying a person on their side with a backpack on would prevent them from rolling onto their back and choking on their vomit. This idea does not work. A person with alcohol poisoning should never be left alone.
- Do not have them walk it off: Walking may cause stumbling or falling, which can lead to injuries. It is best to stay in one place and keep them upright if possible.
- Do not put them in a cold shower: Alcohol lowers body temperature and drinking too much alcohol can lead to hypothermia. It is not a good idea to put a person with alcohol poisoning in a cold shower, as it could make the hypothermia worse.
It is best to keep the person comfortable, upright and conscious until help arrives.
Causes and Behaviors Leading to Alcohol Poisoning
There are many factors that can lead to alcohol poisoning, including:
- The rate at which alcoholic drinks are consumed
- The amount of alcohol per drink
- The number of drinks consumed
A person with an alcohol use disorder is also at risk of drinking too much and getting alcohol poisoning.
Binge drinking is when a person drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. Binge drinking is common among college students, as many students play drinking games or participate in heavy drinking prior to events.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking too much, or binge drinking is defined as a female drinking more than four drinks and a male drinking more than five drinks within two hours.
Drinking Too Much
A drink is defined based on the amount of alcohol it contains and the size of the drink. One drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. In general, the following equate to one drink:
- 12 oz. of light beer (5% alcohol by volume or less)
- 8-9 oz. of malt liquor (about 7% alcohol)
- 5 oz. of wine (about 12% alcohol)
- A 1.5 oz. shot of hard liquor (about 40% alcohol)
These guidelines can differ depending on the specific type of alcohol being consumed and the actual alcohol by volume percentage. The number of drinks that it takes to lead to alcohol poisoning varies by person, depending on a number of factors.
Factors of Alcohol Poisoning
Not everyone responds to alcohol in the same way. There are a number of factors that can contribute to how fast alcohol is absorbed into the body and how someone is affected by drinking alcohol. Some of those factors include:
- Height and weight
- Amount of food eaten recently
- Overall health
- Alcohol tolerance level
- Combining alcohol with other drugs
- Percentage of alcohol in drinks
- Rate and amount of alcohol consumed
What Can Happen If Alcohol Poisoning Isn’t Treated?
If alcohol poisoning is not treated, the following complications could occur:
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart attack
- Severe dehydration
- Brain damage
Alcohol poisoning is serious and requires professional medical attention. If an alcohol overdose is suspected, it is best to call for help right away.
After Effects of Alcohol Poisoning
When a person is recovering from alcohol poisoning, they will have after-effects as the alcohol is processed by their body. These after-effects of alcohol poisoning are similar to what most people would consider a hangover and include:
- Stomach cramping
- Feeling anxious
While recovering from alcohol poisoning, it is important to stay hydrated and to avoid drinking more alcohol. Drinking more alcohol may relieve some of these symptoms, but can make the situation worse in the long-run, as alcohol is not processed by the body as quickly following a binge drinking event.
How to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning
To prevent alcohol poisoning, drink in moderation or choose not to drink alcohol at all. If a person chooses to drink, it is best to enjoy the drink slowly and avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Be careful when drinking mixed drinks, as they often contain more than one serving of alcohol.
It is wise to speak to teenagers and college students about the dangers of drinking alcohol and binge drinking. Alcohol use among adolescents is fairly common, ranging from 3.5–32% of 8–12th graders in the United States. These age groups are among the highest risk population for binge drinking and may not have experience with the effects of alcohol, making them more likely to overdrink.
Products containing alcohol or alcoholic drinks should be kept out of the reach of children, to avoid accidental ingestion and subsequent alcohol poisoning.
Final Thoughts: Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is dangerous and can lead to death. Here are some important reminders when it comes to alcohol poisoning:
- Alcohol poisoning is the result of drinking too much alcohol too fast
- Alcohol poisoning is serious and requires professional medical attention
- When in doubt, it is better to be safe and call for help
- Stay with the person until help arrives
- If possible, keep the person in an upright position and conscious
Alcohol poisoning is often associated with an alcohol use disorder. If you or someone you know faces an alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village can help. To learn more about comprehensive treatment plans, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative.
de la Monte, S.M.; Kril, J.J. “Human alcohol-related neuropathology.” Acta Neuropathologica, January, 2014. Accessed June 20, 2019.
Gardner, J.D.; Mouton, A.J. “Alcohol effects on cardiac function.” Comprehensive Physiology, April, 2015. Accessed June 20, 2019.
National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” October, 2018. Accessed June 20, 2019.
Patrick, M.E.; Terry-McElrath, Y.M. “Prevalence of High-Intensity Drinking from Adolescence through Young Adulthood: National Data from 2016-2017.” Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, January, 2019. Accessed June 20, 2019.
White, A.; Hingson, R. “The burden of alcohol use: excessive alcohol consumption and related consequences among college students.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 2013. Accessed June 20, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.