Alcohol Poisoning: Signs & Symptoms

alcoholIt’s the person who had a few drinks too many and is now “sleeping it off” upstairs. The one stumbling around who isn’t quite sure where they are. It’s the person sitting quietly by themselves, not really coherent anymore.

The signs of alcohol poisoning can be easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You might even think these descriptions are normal for hardcore party-goers. But alcohol poisoning is nothing to be trifled with, with results like severe health issues, long-term brain damage and even death. Know the signs to protect yourself and the people around you.

What Exactly Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a condition in which alcohol causes the body’s functions (heart rate, breathing and gag reflex) to shut down, and when the liver can no longer detoxify the alcohol in the body. It’s caused by consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, which is why it’s common with binge drinkers. This condition can occur intentionally as a result of binge drinking or accidentally as a result of ingesting a household product that contains. Alcohol poisoning can lead to choking, coma or worse. In fact, according to the CDC, six people died every day from alcohol poisoning in the U.S. from 2010 to 2012.

Although anyone who drinks excessively is at risk for alcohol poisoning, there are some factors that can increase the risk, including:

  • Overall health
  • If any food was consumed prior to drinking
  • Tolerance level
  • Size and weight
  • Percentage of alcohol consumed in each drink

Just as with every other type of poisoning, the body reacts in a negative way when it’s poisoned with alcohol. Alcohol poisoning occurs when the blood alcohol content (BAC) is so high that it’s considered toxic. This happens when the liver is no longer able to filter out alcohol in the body. In some cases, the BAC can be so high that it can prevent vital functions from working properly, such as breathing and the gag reflex. Of course, this can result in choking, coma and even death. Even when someone stops drinking, the BAC can continue to climb for up to 40 minutes.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is the result of intaking more alcohol than the body can handle. When there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream, the brain can no longer control basic life-support functions, such as heart rate, breathing and temperature regulation. This is what makes alcohol poisoning so dangerous.

While the only side effects of drinking too much might just be a hangover and feelings of regret for some drinkers, the effects can be far worse for others. Different people respond to alcohol in different ways, so it’s important to be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning, which can be life-threatening. The “signs” of any medical condition are those that can either be detected or confirmed only by a medical care professional. The following are a few of the most common signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Irregular heart rate
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Dehydration

Alcohol poisoning often occurs with those who misuse alcohol regularly and those who are addicted to alcohol. To prevent alcohol poisoning, always drink responsibly and know your limits.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

Drinking alcohol in excess can be dangerous for a number of reasons, one of which is the risk for alcohol poisoning. Many drinkers and nondrinkers are already familiar with the symptoms of intoxication, and fortunately, not ever inebriation case warrants a phone call for immediate medical treatment. However, if alcohol poisoning is suspected, 911 or a local emergency number should be contacted as soon as possible. The primary reason is that alcohol poisoning can be fatal.

So how do you know when you should call 911? Simply knowing what alcohol poisoning symptoms to look for will help. It can also make the difference between life and death for you or a loved one. The following are some of the common alcohol poisoning symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Pale or blue-hued skin
  • Clammy skin
  • Passing out/unconsciousness
  • Seizures
  • Irregular breathing
  • Decreased gag reflex
  • Choking or struggling for air
  • Loss of coordination (passing out)
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of bowel control
  • Stupor (awake but unresponsive)
  • Shivering
  • Vision disturbances

If someone is showing any of these alcohol poisoning symptoms, don’t wait for others to appear. Remember, an average of six people die from alcohol poisoning every day, and it’s never worth the risk.

How Do You Know if You Have Alcohol Poisoning?

You don’t have to be a drinker to know the signs of intoxication. Headache, slurred speech, blurred vision…the list goes on and on. With that in mind, answering the “how do you know if you’re intoxicated” question can be easy to answer, but how do you know if you have alcohol poisoning? Many of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning differ from those of intoxication, and many of them are more serious. To answer the question about whether you have alcohol poisoning requires knowing the symptoms and the signs.

Of course, no one knows your body better than you do, so if you notice any physical or mental changes after binge drinking (consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time), it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. This could mean calling the Poison Control hotline at 800-222-1222 or 911.

Some of the most obvious physical symptoms of alcohol poisoning that are unique to this condition are decreased gag reflex, loss of bowel control and pale or blue-tinged skin. Once you call Poison Control or 911, a medical professional can then examine you to look for signs of alcohol poisoning (irregular heart rate, dehydration, etc.) to determine if you’ve been poisoned or not.

What to do if You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning

If you sense that someone’s had too much, stay with them and follow these steps.

If the Person Is Conscious

If the individual is awake, act firmly, but not judgmentally. Try to keep them conscious and sitting up. Offer them water, if they can drink it, and keep them warm. Alcohol relaxes the blood vessels, letting heat escape. They may be at risk for hypothermia. Call poison control at 800-222-1222 (in the U.S.) to speak to an expert and make sure the individual is safe.

It is your responsibility to watch out for them until they’re in the clear. Make sure to never:

  • Let them try to sleep it off. As alcohol continues to absorb into their bloodstream, they can become increasingly intoxicated during sleep.
  • Give them coffee. It won’t help them sober up, and the caffeine is a laxative. They’re already dehydrated, and losing more water could lead to lasting brain damage.
  • Try to make them vomit. As intoxication rises, the gag reflex stops working. It’s possible that they could suffocate.
  • Walk them around. It’s not going to help them become sober any faster, and they might stumble and hurt themselves.
  • Give them a cold shower. They’re already at risk for hypothermia, and a cold shower can let their body temperature fall dangerously low, leading to cardiac arrest.
  • Let them drink any more alcohol. The more alcohol in their blood stream, the worse their symptoms may get and the more at risk they are to long-term damage.

If the Person Is Unconscious

If the person is unconscious, consider it an emergency and call 911 immediately. Turn the person onto their side. You can put a pillow at the small of their back to keep them in place. This will help keep their airway clear if they vomit. Check that they’re breathing properly, and keep them warm until help arrives. Never leave them or assume that they’ll just be fine in the morning.

Behaviors to Look Out For

The best way to combat alcohol poisoning is to prevent it from happening in the first place. There are some drinking habits that are more likely to result in an overdose. Here’s what to look out for:

Heavy Drinking

When ordering at a bar, you’ll generally get drinks in standard sizes. The size varies from beer, to wine, to distilled spirits like vodka and whiskey, because each type has different amounts of pure alcohol. For beer, one drink is 12 fluid ounces—the size of one bottle. For wine, it’s 5 fluid ounces, and for distilled spirits (80 proof), it’s 1.5 fluid ounces—roughly a shot.

Men and women have different alcohol tolerances because their bodies process alcohol differently. For men 65 and under, heavy drinking is defined as over 4 drinks in a day and more than 14 in a week. For women and older men, heavy drinking is more than 3 drinks in a day, or more than 7 drinks in a week.

While small amounts of alcohol are proven to have some health benefits, heavy drinking can actually increase the chances of serious health problems such as:

  • Heart damage, leading to heart failure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Certain cancers
  • Liver disease
  • Stroke
  • Brain damage and other complications in an unborn child (if drinking while pregnant)
  • Suicide

At the very least, individuals who drink heavily and then stop are likely to experience the symptoms alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which range from mild anxiety to serious complications like seizures and even death. If someone you know is drinking heavily, don’t be afraid to talk to them about it. It may even be time to hold an intervention.

Binge Drinking

More than half of the alcohol adult Americans consume is done in binge drinking. Unfortunately, this is one of the most dangerous ways to consume alcohol. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that puts an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .08 or above. That means that .08% of their bloodstream is made up of alcohol. For women, this usually happens when they have 4 or more drinks within two hours. For men, it’s when they have 5 or more in two hours. The human body processes only one drink per hour. If someone drinks a lot in a short time frame, his or her brain will begin to slow down and they’ll lose your sense of balance. The stomach may get irritated, causing them to vomit. Alcohol also stops the gag reflex from functioning the way it should, meaning the person may choke or even inhale vomit, causing lasting damage. Binge drinking can lead to permanent brain damage from dehydrating, seizures from low blood sugar, and hypothermia. It can even cause breathing and the heartbeat to stop.

Related: How long does alcohol stay in your system?

If you see someone binge drinking, don’t be afraid to step in and persuade them to slow down. You might just save their life. While binge drinking does not usually correlate with alcoholism early on, it is a drinking problem of its own and can easily become an alcohol addiction over time.

Alcohol and Medication

Alcohol poisoning doesn’t happen just from too much to drink. There are over 150 medications that have a bad reaction with alcohol. Some of the most common medicines have the worst reactions. For example, never mix alcohol with aspirin, which can cause stomach bleeding. Alcohol plus Tylenol (aceteminophen) is a recipe for liver damage. Consuming alcohol with narcotic painkillers, antihistamines (Benadryl, Dramamine), and ibuprofen (Advil) are also bad ideas. If you or someone you know has taken any medication with alcohol without clearing it with a doctor, call poison control at 800-222-1222 (in the U.S.).

Don’t Wait to Get Help

Alcohol poisoning can be deadly. If you or someone you know has experienced alcohol poisoning and is drinking frequently, there may be a more serious underlying problem. Let us give you the knowledge you need to face it. Learn more about alcohol addiction treatment as well as our drug and alcohol detox programs.

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Photo via Emma Tinson under Creative Commons License.

Alcohol Poisoning: Signs & Symptoms
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