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 United States 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.
What Are The Signs of Alcohol Poisoning?
When people drink, alcohol is 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.
What are the signs of alcohol poisoning? Early warning signs include:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Uneven or shallow breathing
- Becoming unconscious
- Irregular heartbeat
- Severe dehydration
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Cold, clammy skin
- Low body temperature
These symptoms indicate that someone has had more alcohol than their body can tolerate. Side effects can escalate and potentially be fatal if left untreated. Someone displaying these signs needs medical attention right away.
Understanding Alcohol Poisoning and BAC
Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is a measurement of the percentage of ethanol in a person’s blood. How high a person’s BAC depends on several factors.
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 varies depending on the type of alcohol:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of liquor
The overall amount of ethanol in each drink also plays a role — for example, craft beer typically contains more alcohol than a light beer. Additionally, even two people who drink the exact same amounts may have different BAC levels, since someone’s BAC is also affected by their height, weight, sex, age, race and physical health. Someone will also have more alcohol in their bloodstream if they haven’t eaten in a while, have a lower physical tolerance to alcohol, or are mixing booze with other drugs. Illicit or prescription drugs like opioids, sleep aids and mental health medications can increase the chances that someone will overdose.
Signs of intoxication like moderate problems with balance, speech and memory can begin when a person’s BAC reaches 0.06%. At BAC levels above 0.16%, people have severe issues with decision making and reaction times. At this stage, they are likely to blackout, vomit and lose consciousness. The alcohol poisoning BAC is around 0.30%. Beyond this level, people are much more at risk for serious consequences including death.
Alcohol poisoning and BAC levels are primarily related to binge drinking, which is defined as four drinks over a two-hour period for women and five drinks for men. In the United States, 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 ten or more drinks in a row.
While young adults are more likely to binge drink, middle-aged adults are most likely to die from alcohol poisoning. Over three-quarters of alcohol poisoning deaths occur in people ages 35 to 64.
Signs of Severe Alcohol Poisoning
If alcohol poisoning is left untreated, someone may develop the following signs of severe alcohol poisoning:
- Respiratory arrest
- Heart attack
- Permanent brain damage
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 (800-662-4357).
Emergency Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning
If it seems like 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 that they won’t choke on vomit. Others should stay with them until medical help arrives and should be prepared to give emergency responders information about who the person is and what they drank.
Treatment methods that don’t help someone with alcohol poisoning include:
- Sleeping it off: Serious complications or permanent damage is a possibility while someone is sleeping if they don’t get medical attention.
- Taking a cold shower: People who have alcohol poisoning are already at risk of hypothermia. Taking 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: Alcohol and caffeine both lead to dehydration. Having coffee or another caffeinated beverage can make symptoms of alcohol poisoning even worse.
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 make sure that potentially life-threatening symptoms are treated immediately.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” January 6, 2015. Accessed August 23, 2019.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” October 2018. Accessed August 23, 2019.
Patrick, Megan E.; Terry-McElrath, Yvonne M. “Prevalence of High-Intensity Drinking from Adolescence through Young Adulthood: National Data from 2016-2017.” Substance Abuse, January 12, 2019. Accessed August 23, 2019.