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Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Last Updated: September 22, 2023

Alcohol poisoning happens when people drink too much alcohol within a short period. It can lead to severe short- and long-term consequences and is potentially fatal. In fact, six people die every day in the U.S. because of alcohol poisoning. People who binge drink or others who drink large amounts of alcohol should be aware of the potential dangers and be prepared to seek emergency medical care if they notice any alcohol poisoning signs.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

When people drink, the alcohol they consume is slowly metabolized by the liver. If someone drinks more than their liver can process, alcohol and toxins will build up in their bloodstream, eventually causing damage to organs such as the lungs and heart. High levels of alcohol can also prevent the brain from carrying out basic functions like breathing. If an alcohol overdose is suspected, people should seek medical help immediately to prevent dangerous long-term damage or death.

Early Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

What are the signs of alcohol poisoning? Early warning signs include:

  • Confusion and disorientation: The person drinking may become more confused about what is happening around them or where they are.
  • Vomiting: While nausea will have already been present, vomiting will begin to occur.
  • Decreased coordination: It may become more difficult to walk, hold things or pick things up and move them.
  • Slurred speech: The person drinking will have slurred speech and be harder to understand. The more intoxicated they become, the greater this effect will be.
  • Impaired vision: Seeing straight may become more difficult, and vision may become blurred, or there may be double vision.

These early signs may not always mean that alcohol poisoning is developing but should suggest that someone’s blood alcohol content is reaching a level where this can occur. These symptoms should indicate that the person drinking should stop, and those around them should keep a close eye on them, ensuring that more serious symptoms do not develop.

Advanced Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

Advanced symptoms of alcohol poisoning indicate that someone has had more alcohol than their body can tolerate and may be at high risk. Side effects can escalate and potentially be fatal if left untreated. Someone displaying these signs needs medical attention right away:

  • Becoming unconscious
  • Uneven or shallow breathing
  • Irregular or slow heartbeat
  • Severe dehydration
  • Pale or blue-tinged skin
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Choking
  • Low body temperature
  • Hypothermia

These signs indicate that someone may have had a lethal amount of alcohol. Anyone who notices extreme symptoms in someone who has been drinking should call 9-1-1 right away. Other resources that can help people learn more about severe alcohol poisoning signs include the National Poison Control Center (800-222-1222) and the hotline for The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (844-523-4050).

Understanding Alcohol Poisoning and BAC

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) measures the percentage of ethanol (the active ingredient in alcohol) in a person’s blood. How high a person’s BAC becomes depends on several factors.

Factors Affecting BAC

  • Number of drinks: Ultimately, the more drinks a person has, the higher their BAC will be and the more likely they are to be drunk and display physical signs of alcohol poisoning. The amount of alcohol considered to be one drink differs depending on the type of alcohol:
    • 12 ounces of beer
    • 8 ounces of malt liquor
    • 5 ounces of wine
    • 1.5 ounces of liquor
  • Alcohol percentage: The overall amount of ethanol in each drink also plays a role — for example, craft beer typically contains more alcohol than light beer. 
  • Physical characteristics: Two people who drink the same amounts may have different BAC levels since someone’s BAC is also affected by their height, weight, sex, age, race and physical health. 
  • Drinking on an empty stomach: Food, especially those high in carbohydrates, slows absorption of alcohol. So if you consume alcohol without eating, you’ll become more intoxicated more quickly.
  • Mixing alcohol with other drugs: Illicit or prescription drugs like opioids, sleep aids and mental health medications can increase the chances that someone will overdose.

BAC and Signs of Intoxication

  • 0.06% BAC: Signs of intoxication, like moderate problems with balance, speech and memory, can begin at this level. 
  • 0.16% BAC: At BAC levels above 0.16%, people have severe issues with decision-making and reaction times. They are likely to blackout, vomit and lose consciousness at this stage. 
  • 0.30% BAC: The alcohol poisoning BAC is around 0.30%. At and beyond this level, people have a much higher risk for serious consequences, including death.

Binge Drinking

Alcohol poisoning and high BAC levels are primarily related to binge drinking, defined as four drinks or more over two hours for women and five drinks or more for men. In the U.S., young adults report high levels of binge drinking. Nearly a third of 21 and 22-year-olds reported drinking five or more drinks in a row, and 11.5% of people at this age reported drinking 10 or more drinks in a row.

While young adults are likelier to binge drink, middle-aged adults are likelier to die from alcohol poisoning. Over three-quarters of alcohol poisoning deaths occur in people ages 35–64.

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Treatment for alcohol poisoning requires hospital care and advanced life support equipment. If someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, they must get to a hospital to be treated correctly. If you are with someone who may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 to access emergency help as quickly as possible.

What To Do Until Medical Help Arrives

If someone has signs of alcohol poisoning, they shouldn’t be left alone or expected to sleep it off. People trying to help someone with alcohol poisoning should encourage them to stay awake and sit up. If the person becomes unconscious, they should be laid on their side so they won’t choke if they vomit. Others should stay with them until medical help arrives and be prepared to inform emergency responders about who the person is and what they drank.

“Home Remedies” Are Not Effective

Treatment methods that don’t help someone with alcohol poisoning include:

  • Sleeping it off: Serious complications or permanent damage are possible while someone is sleeping if they don’t get medical attention.
  • Taking a cold shower: People with alcohol poisoning are already at risk of hypothermia. A cold shower can make this side effect more likely and does nothing to sober someone up.
  • Going for a walk: Those who are extremely drunk are more likely to fall or injure themselves if they’re forced to walk around.
  • Having a cup of coffee: Some people might believe the effects of coffee could at least partially counter the effects of alcohol. The truth is, however, having coffee or another caffeinated beverage is not likely to make any meaningful difference in preventing the effects of alcohol poisoning.

Professional Medical Treatment

For people with alcohol poisoning signs, treatment may include medication to ease symptoms and IV fluids to help with dehydration. Medical professionals can also monitor someone to ensure that potentially life-threatening symptoms are treated immediately. Someone who has heart-related complications may require IV medications and constant heart monitoring. Breathing difficulties may require temporary life support using a machine that mechanically breathes for them.

Alcohol Poisoning Prevention

The only way to fully prevent alcohol poisoning is to avoid using high quantities of alcohol. However, there are some strategies you can use to reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning if you are drinking. Even if you combine these strategies with binge drinking, there is still a moderately high chance of alcohol poisoning.

How Can I Reduce My Risk of Alcohol Poisoning?

To reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning, you should avoid situations that can raise your BAC quickly or slow how rapidly your body can metabolize alcohol. Some ways to reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Avoid drinking games: Drinking games are likely to pressure you into drinking more than you should and to drink quickly. 
  • Set limits: Set yourself a drinking limit and stick to it. Have someone hold you accountable if you have problems following the limit.
  • Don’t mix alcohol with other things: Alcohol can take longer to metabolize if you use medications or other substances. Some drugs, like opioids, can also create effects that augment the effects of alcohol and make overdose more likely.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach: Alcohol absorbs more slowly if your body is also absorbing food.
  • Drink slowly: Your body metabolizes alcohol at a fixed rate. Slowly drinking allows your body more time to bring your BAC down.

Seek Professional Help

Contact Orlando Recovery Center to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can address your alcohol use disorder. Take the first step toward a healthier future and call today.


US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Binge Drinking.” November 14, 2022. Accessed June 22, 2023.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” January 6, 2015. Accessed June 22, 2023.

Paton, Alex. “ABC of alcohol: Alcohol in the body.” BMJ, January 8, 2005. Accessed July 13, 2023.

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