Symptoms of Acute Alcohol Poisoning

Passing Out From Drinking Could Indicate Danger

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More than 2,200 people die from alcohol poisoning each year, which is an average of six people per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most fatalities are men, and three in four people are between the ages of 35 and 65.

Consuming too much alcohol too quickly can lead to alcohol poisoning, which is marked by symptoms such as poor coordination, hyperthermia, irregular heartbeat, slowed breathing, and unconsciousness. It is very dangerous and potentially fatal.

This article discusses the causes and symptoms of alcohol poisoning. It also covers available medical treatments that may be needed.

Causes of Alcohol Poisoning

Too much alcohol in your bloodstream causes the areas of your brain that support breathing, your heart rate, and other essential life-supporting functions to start to shut down.

In other words, your friend who drank way too much may not just be sleeping it off. If they are experiencing an episode of acute alcohol poisoning or drinking too much too quickly, their condition could lead to coma and even death if you do not intervene.

Alcohol poisoning affects the brain, blood vessels, and liver. Rapid fluid ingestion alters the fluid concentration in your body, potentially disrupting your fluid and electrolyte balance.

Children or adults can get alcohol poisoning. When it comes to kids, and maybe adults too, your thoughts might immediately jump to the liquor cabinet, but remember that another household product that contains alcohol, such as a cooking extract, or medicinal tincture, could be the culprit.

Certain factors increase the risk of alcohol poisoning. Some of these include:

  • Body weight and size
  • Combining alcohol with other substances
  • Overall health
  • Rate of alcohol consumption and how much is consumed
  • Tolerance level
  • Whether or not food has been recently consumed

People who engage in binge drinking have a higher risk of experiencing alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks (for men) or four or more drinks (for women) within two hours.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

Learning the symptoms of acute alcohol poisoning can help you distinguish between a friend who is drunk and passed out and a person who is unconscious due to acute alcohol poisoning.

  • Breathing slowly or irregularly (less than eight times a minute or ten seconds or more between any two breaths)
  • Clammy or blue-tinged skin and extremely low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Confusion
  • No gag reflex, which prevents choking when vomiting
  • Passing out
  • Seizures
  • Slow heart rate
  • Vomiting while passed out and doesn't wake up during or after vomiting

Remember, your friend does not have to have all the symptoms to be at risk. And anyone who cannot be awakened or is unconscious is at risk of dying.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning typically correspond to blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels. 

  1. Mild impairment (0.0 - 0.05%): At this level, people may experience some mild impairments in speech, balance, memory, and attention. They may feel relaxed or even sleepy.
  2. Increased impairment (0.06 - 0.15%): People become increasingly intoxicated at this point. They exhibit problems with speech, coordination, and balance. Driving is significantly impaired.
  3. Severe impairment (0.16 - 0.30%): Driving is very dangerous at this point, and people may experience alcohol poisoning symptoms such as blackouts, vomiting, and loss of consciousness.
  4. Life-threatening (0.31 - 0.45%): Serious symptoms of alcohol overdose are present at this level. This includes loss of consciousness, suppression of vital functions, and a significant risk of death.

In addition to the serious risk of death, alcohol poisoning can also lead to irreversible brain damage. Other long-term complications of heavy alcohol use include addiction, cancer, cirrhosis, liver disease, vitamin deficiencies, and mental health problems. It also increases the risk of unintentional injuries due to falls, drowning, assault, and car accidents.

What to Do If You Think Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning

Here are the steps to take if you think someone has alcohol poisoning:

  1. Call 911 immediately, even if you don't see the classic signs or symptoms. Do not hesitate and don't think about any legal ramifications. Your friend's life could depend on your quick response.
  2. Prepare yourself to provide information to the emergency personnel or the hospital, including the type and amount of alcohol and when your friend drank it.
  3. Do not leave your friend alone and continue to try to revive them. Turn them on their side, so they will be less likely to choke if they vomit.
  4. If your friend is vomiting, try to keep them sitting up and awake.
  5. Watch their breathing closely. If they stop breathing, be prepared to perform CPR. If you don't know how to perform CPR, try to find someone who does.
  6. Do not give your friend coffee or put them or her into a cold shower. Despite common myths, these methods do not reduce the effects of alcohol poisoning.

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Calling 911 and keeping your friend safe until help arrives is the first step to safely treating someone with alcohol poisoning. Available treatments to treat alcohol poisoning include:

  • IV fluids: Once at the hospital (or en route), a medical professional may give a person with alcohol poisoning intravenous (IV) fluids to replace the fluid loss from vomiting and balance any fluid and electrolyte disruption in the body caused by the excessive amounts of alcohol.
  • Oxygen: Oxygen may also be administered for respiratory support, especially if the person is experiencing irregular or slowed breathing, and medication to regulate any dips in blood pressure.
  • Stomach pumping: A tube may be inserted to remove alcohol from the stomach. This can help prevent alcohol that is consumed from being metabolized.
  • Blood filtration: Hemodialysis is a procedure that uses a dialysis machine to filter the blood. It can be used to remove alcohol and its metabolites from the body quickly.

If the person is experiencing seizures, a short-term anticonvulsant medication will be given to stop the seizures.

A healthcare provider may also suggest that individuals seek treatment for their alcohol use or talk to a mental health professional. An individual may want to seek treatment for alcohol use or another mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

A healthcare provider can offer treatment recommendations, assist with medical detox, and prescribe medications that can treat cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does alcohol poisoning last?

    The duration of alcohol poisoning depends on a number of different factors, including how much alcohol has been consumed, how quickly it was consumed, and how quickly it is metabolized. Factors that can influence the rate of metabolism include weight, age, sex, other medications, and tolerance. Whether or not a person has eaten and how much they have eaten can also impact how long alcohol poisoning lasts.

  • What should I eat after alcohol poisoning?

    If you are recovering from alcohol intoxication and are experiencing a hangover, drinking fluids can help treat dehydration. Eating whole grains, bananas, yogurt, and sweet potatoes can also be helpful. If you are currently experiencing alcohol poisoning, you should seek medical attention.

  • Can you die from alcohol poisoning?

    Alcohol poisoning is serious and potentially fatal. Consuming too much alcohol too quickly can negatively affect heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and the gag reflex. It can lead to loss of consciousness, coma, brain damage, and death.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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