Alcohol Poisoning

While there are certain health benefits from consuming alcohol in moderation, there are also huge dangers in drinking irresponsibly, with one of the biggest being alcohol poisoning.

In the UK and US, alcohol tops the list of the most commonly abused drugs available. Indeed, alcohol is considered a drug, especially considering how it affects your central nervous system. While the recreational use of alcohol is legal (as long as you are of age), there is a wide range of risks attached to abusing or developing an addiction to it.

Because alcohol is socially acceptable, it doesn’t share the same taboo as illegal substances that are often abused recreationally. This widespread acceptability of alcohol creates a slippery slope that can easily lead to abuse and alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning can be described as the dangerous outcome of consuming alcohol in excess, within a short period of time. When you drink high quantities of alcohol too quickly, it can lead to health complications and life-threatening consequences. Regardless your tolerance levels, weight, age, gender or overall health, you can still fall prey to alcohol poisoning if you aren’t careful.

The more you drink, the higher your blood alcohol content (BAC) level will rise. In time, your BAC will become so high that it will cause hampered functionality of your body’s physical, mental, and emotional processes. Strangely, a person who abuses alcohol excessively might still experience the onset of alcohol poisoning even after they have stopped drinking. One cause of this can be seen in how BAC levels tend to keep rising for up to 40 minutes after consumption of alcohol.

The physical and mental impact of alcohol poisoning can be aggressive and lethal, which is why it’s recommended you don’t try treating yourself if you suspect you’re experiencing alcohol poisoning. Mismanagement of alcohol poisoning can lead in turn lead to other dangerous consequences.

If you are experiencing alcohol poisoning or suspect that a loved one is, contact emergency medical services immediately for assistance. Afterwards, you can get in touch with a confidential alcohol abuse rehab for professional assistance in kicking your drinking habit.

Who Is at Risk?

Everyone and anyone who has access to alcohol and doesn’t drink responsibly is at risk of alcohol poisoning, and it’s not something that should be taken lightly. Anyone – regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity- can experience alcohol poisoning if they consume an excessive amount within a short period of time. However, there are certain groups of people who are more susceptible to excessive drinking and the associated danger of alcohol poisoning. This group of people are commonly made up of college students, as well as middle-aged adults.

The majority of college students (especially ‘freshers’) are experiencing freedom and life on their own for the first time. Because of the sheer number of social activities within the college environment that involve heavy alcohol consumption – and the likelihood of increased peer pressure – many individuals in this category are likely to abuse alcohol. It’s important that we keep in contact with our families and responsible loved ones while in our first years away from home. The support and love we need are essential for our well-being.

Middle-aged men also make up a significant demographic of those prone to alcohol poisoning deaths, especially in the UK, US, and parts of Europe. Though a variety of factors contribute to alcohol abuse, people who initially develop a drinking habit in their teenage years are at greater risk of suffering from alcoholism in the latter part of their lives. Stress and depression can also contribute to the development of substance abuse and possibly alcohol poisoning

Underage drinkers are at a particularly high risk of experiencing an alcohol overdose. Studies have shown that individuals under the age of 20 typically consume up to five drinks per sitting. Such a large quantity can overwhelm the natural ability of the body to breakdown, metabolise, and clear alcohol from the bloodstream.

What to Do duringAlcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning should never be taken lightly due to its potentially fatal nature. Therefore, if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning, it’s best to seek immediate attention from medical professionals. Call for an ambulance or have yourself or your loved one driven to a medical facility promptly.

Whilst waiting for an ambulance to arrive, it’s advised you do the following to stay safe:

  • Stay alert and don’t panic.
  • Stay in an upright sitting position. If it’s someone else that needs help, keep them seated upright until help arrives.
  • Keep whoever is suffering from alcohol poisoning awake at all costs.
  • Keep a close eye on the patient and don’t leave them until help arrives.
  • Once emergency medical responders arrive, be prepared to provide any personal information they might need about the patient. There might also be questions about what happened and other details of the incident.

Providing truthful and complete information is essential for the quick and correct implementation of medical help. Do not be ashamed or afraid of giving the whole story; it will help save a life.

Once at the hospital, proper treatment can be provided to care for alcohol poisoning. The treatment proffered will depend on the severity of alcohol poisoning symptoms, as well as the BAC level. If the patient is experiencing trouble breathing, a windpipe might be inserted in order to facilitate normal breathing. If dehydrated or blood glucose levels are dangerously low, an intravenous drip could be administered.

In scenarios where alcohol poisoning is of life-threatening proportions, a stomach pump can be utilised to quickly clear the system of toxins. This will facilitate the process of clearing the bloodstream of alcohol and reduce the risk of possibly fatal complications.

Blackouts and Alcohol Poisoning

Typically, people stop drinking once they’ve reached a level of intoxication that’s beyond what they can handle. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, especially individuals who binge drink. Binge drinking can be described as the consumption of alcohol until the BAC rises to .08 or higher. This can be accomplished by consuming high volumes of alcohol within a short period of time.

The human liver is designed to process only a limited amount of alcohol – specifically about one unit of alcohol per hour. Think of one unit of alcohol as 10 ml of pure alcohol, which is in turn equal to a third of a pint of beer, a 175ml glass of red wine, or a 25ml measure of whisky. When exceeded, the breathing, heart rate and ability to control body temperature become endangered and there is a risk of a total system shutdown. A woman will be considered a binge drinker if she consumes as much as four standard drinks

in a short period of time – perhaps two hours. On the other hand, a man will be considered a binge drinker if he consumes five standard drinks within the same amount of time. What counts as a standard alcoholic drink can vary, as different drinks contain varying alcohol content levels.

Some individuals experience blackouts after two drinks, while other heavy drinkers may never experience a blackout. Therefore, the precise number of alcoholic drinks that will result in an overdose or blackout isn’t always clear.

The severity can also differ, depending on how much alcohol was consumed and if it was done soon an empty stomach. The amount of water drank afterwards can also be a determining factor. Depending on these influences, the health-related risks of excessive alcohol intake can be immediate or long-term.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

If a person has been drinking heavily and begins to manifest any of the following symptoms, promptly seek medical assistance:

  • Bluish skin colour or paleness
  • Clammy skin
  • Coma
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Dulled responses (such as no gag reflex)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Irregular breathing (this can be 10seconds or longer between breaths, or fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Seizures
  • Slow heart rate
  • Vomiting
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Providing immediate help: do’s and don’ts

If a friend or someone close by starts displaying symptoms of alcohol poisoning, please help them by adhering to the following do’s and don’ts until professional help arrives.


  • Help the person in question sit up and stay awake. Do what you can to ensure they don’t fall asleep.
  • Let them drink water, but not coffee (as it will worsen dehydration).
  • Put a blanket or jacket around them to keep them warm.
  • Don’t leave their side until help arrives.
  • Monitor their breathing.
  • If they’ve passed out, lay them on their side to prevent them choking on their own vomit.


  • Don’t allow them to ‘sleep it off’ or ‘walk it off’.
  • Don’t try to induce vomiting.
  • Don’t try sobering them up with coffee or a cold shower.
  • Do not leave their side.

Behaviours to look out for

Alcohol is inherently poisonous and there isn’t necessarily a minimum or maximum amount you need to consume before you experience alcohol poisoning. If abusing alcohol dangerously or experiencing alcohol poisoning, the following behaviours will likely be evident:

  • Blue-tinged or pale skin
  • Confusion or stupor
  • Slurred speech or incoherent mumbling
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Stumbling
  • Vomiting

If any of these behaviour patterns are noticed, do not hesitate to seek medical assistance as soon as possible in order to prevent complications such as long-term physical, mental or behavioural disorders.

When to seek medical help?

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, don’t wait around wondering or hoping the symptoms will pass. It’s always best to seek medical help ASAP so that supportive care can be provided and the symptoms of alcohol poisoning treated. In short, get help fast before symptoms increase or worsen.

Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning

An individual experiencing alcohol poisoning is typically exposed to the following dangers:

  • Severe dehydration, which in extreme cases can lead to permanent brain damage
  • Choking on vomit
  • Severe hypothermia
  • Heart attack
  • Low blood sugar levels that lead to epileptic seizures
  • Aspiration of vomit, which can lead to possibly fatal lung damage
  • Continuous vomiting and retching which leads to a torn blood vessel and regurgitating blood. This is referred to as ‘Mallory-Weiss tear’
  • Impeded breathing

Alcohol and Your Body: Why Alcohol Poisoning Is Dangerous?

As previously stated, alcohol is inherently poisonous and can subsequently cause various degrees of damage to the body when taken in excess, especially continuously over a period of time. The negative impacts of alcohol typically damage the brain, stomach, liver and heart.

Alcohol functions in the body by depressing the nerves responsible for breathing, gag reflex, and other involuntary actions. Alcohol in excess will stop these functional together.

Because alcohol irritates the stomach, it can lead to vomiting if taken in excess. The person throwing up could choke on their own vomit, which in turn can lead to death by asphyxiation, especially if the individual is unconscious. Even after someone has stopped drinking, alcohol that’s already in the stomach and intestine can continue to seep into the bloodstream, leading to a continued increase of that person’s BAC (blood alcohol concentration).

Alcohol and your stomach

Excessive drinking can lead to bloating, gas, haemorrhoids, as well as ulcers. The connection between your digestive system and alcohol consumption might not be immediately clear, as often its side effects only manifest after the damage has been done; the more the drinking, the greater the damage will be.

Excessive continuous alcohol abuse will lead to tissue damage in your digestive tract and impede the ability of your intestines to digest food and absorb nutrients, such as vitamins. This can ultimately lead to malnutrition.

Alcohol and your brain

Long-term exposure to alcohol can lead to a gradual shrinking of your frontal lobe. It can also result in behaviour changes, hallucinations, and the development of substance dependence, which will make it hard for you to quit alcohol. When you have a high BAC, the ability of your hippocampus to form new memories becomes impaired.

Frontal lobe damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption can be responsible for problems with emotional control, short-term memory, ability to make a good judgement, and other vital roles of the brain. Chronic alcohol abuse can also lead to permanent brain damage, such as the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Alcohol and your liver

Alcohol poisoning can damage your liver and prevent it from effectively processing waste and other harmful substances. Liver disease is life-threatening because it causes toxins and other waste to build up in your body.

Alcohol and your heart

Chronic alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease. It can lead to complications such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, difficulty pumping blood through the body, consequentially leading to stroke, heart attack, and other forms of heart failure.

How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?

With the aid of proper supportive care, alcohol poisoning’s effects can wear off within a few hours, but in severe cases, there could be lasting internal damage.

Binge drinking is what most commonly leads to alcohol poisoning, but what counts as an episode of binge drinking will vary from person to person, due to differences in height, gender and weight. For your own safety, it’s best to avoid excessive alcohol drinking altogether and educate yourself on the measures to take in the event someone close by begins to show signs of alcohol poisoning.

Effects of Untreated Alcohol Poisoning

If alcohol poisoning and its symptoms are left untreated or ignored, they can lead to either short or long-term health problems. Therefore, seek medical help immediately if you suspect or notice signs of alcohol poisoning. Delay or failure to do so could result in further health complications later on.

Failure to get prompt treatment can lead to exacerbating the symptoms already present by continuing binge drinking.

Alcohol poisoning that goes untreated can result in:

  • Hypothermia
  • Hypoglycaemia
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Irregular breathing
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Death
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Alcohol Facts and Statistics

In the United States of America alone, alcohol poisoning claims about six lives every day, with most of the victims being adult men. Even though alcohol is socially accepted, it is nonetheless recognised as one of the most harmful substances to abuse.

Studies have shown that alcohol abuse causes 1 in 20 deaths worldwide.

50% of drinkers experience alcohol-induced blackouts at least once in their life. A study of 1,402 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 in the UK revealed that 74% of 19-year-olds reported suffering a blackout in 2015, while 30% of 15-year-olds experienced a black out brought on by excessive alcohol consumption.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that alcohol abuse likely contributes to over three million deaths every year across the globe.

Alcohol Overdose vs. Alcohol Poisoning and Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication is brought about by excessive consumption of alcohol, which can lead to the alteration of your physiological and psychological condition. Alcohol intoxication symptoms typically include flushed skin, euphoria, and decreased social inhibition. Larger doses of alcohol consumed within a short period can lead to more severe symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, severe impairment of balance, as well as affecting decision-making capabilities.

Alcohol overdose occurs when your blood alcohol content (BAC) has risen to a level that’s high enough to cause impairments that significantly increase your risk of suffering physical or psychological harm. An overdose will occur when you are intoxicated beyond what your body can naturally tolerate. This can lead to nausea, slurred speech, imbalance or more severe symptoms, such as coma or even death. What tips the balance between intoxication and overdose will vary from individual to individual.

Alcohol poisoning, on the other hand, is brought about by aprecariously high concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream – high enough to induce respiratory depression, coma, or even death. It could be said that alcohol poisoning is the end result of an alcohol overdose. Alcohol poisoning is evident when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that it negatively impacts areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions.

The condition is considered a medical emergency due to its life-threatening nature. Signs of alcohol poisoning typically include confusion, difficulty staying conscious, seizures, vomiting, dulled responses, depressed breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin and extremely low body temperature.

As the symptoms are similar, please contact emergency services as soon as you notice any of them.

How Many “Standard” Drinks Does It Take to CauseAlcohol Poisoning?

Each of the following measurements equals what is generally regarded as a standard drink:

  • 8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 millilitres) of malt liquor (7% ABV)
  • 12 ounces (355 millilitres) of regular beer (4.5% ABV)
  • 5 ounces (148 millilitres) of wine (12% ABV)
  • 5 ounces (44 millilitres) of 80-proof hard liquor (40% ABV)

NB: ABV means Alcohol By Volume

Going by the findings of the NIAAA, drinking can be divided into four categories:low-risk drinking, moderate alcohol consumption, binge drinking, and heavy alcohol use.

The least severe categories are moderate alcohol consumption and low-risk drinking. The NIAAA definesthe latter as no more than three standard drinks per day and no more than seven drinks in a week, while moderate consumption is described as one to two drinks per day.

On the other hand, binge drinking and heavy alcohol use can lead to problems in the short or long-term. Heavy alcohol use is described as binge drinking five or more days within the time span of one month. Binge drinking is defined as having aBAC of more than 0.08 g/dL. To attain a BAC of .08 or higher, a typical man would need to consume five “standard drinks” in roughly two hours, while most women would need to consume four.

Depending on your physiology and whether you’ve eaten, exceeding or simply reaching the quantities stated as binge drinking or heavy alcohol use can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Recommended alcohol limits

Following the NIAAA’s description of moderate consumption and low-risk drinking, it’s likely advisable to not consume more than one to two drinks per day. In truth, what counts as a recommended limit will vary from person to person. Some individuals shouldn’t even be drinking alcohol at all. However, if you enjoy the occasional drink, it’s advised to never exceed three drinks on any day, and no more than seven a week.

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. It poses a significant risk of death, as well as long-term health complications that can arise from aspiration or respiratory depression. Emergency treatment at a medical facility is typically provided to people suffering from alcohol poisoning to stabilise them and maintain an open airway to allow for sufficient breathing. All this will be done whilst waiting for the alcohol in the system to be metabolised.

How is alcohol poisoning treated in hospital?

In a hospital, treatment for alcohol poisoning can involve any of the following:

  • Removing vomitto clear airways.
  • If unconscious or possessing an impaired gag reflex, intubating the trachea to allow for unimpeded airflow.
  • Treatment for low blood sugar via intravenous sugar solutions.
  • Administration of vitamin thiamine to minimise chances of a patient developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can lead to seizures.
  • Administration of medication such as metadoxine.Additional medication may also be provided to treat nausea, tremors and anxiety.
  • Application of haemodialysis if blood concentration is dangerously high or if there is metabolic acidosis.
  • Delivery of oxygen therapy via a nasal cannula or a non-rebreather mask.

However, these treatments only care for the alcohol poisoning episode, which means the alcoholic will likely experience another such incident in future if the root cause of their drinking habit isn’t dealt with. This is why it’s recommended that alcohol addiction treatment and rehab (that identifies and treats the root cause of alcohol abuse) should follow after treatment for alcohol poisoning.


How long does this condition persist?

How long alcohol poisoning lasts has no straightforward answer, as the condition can vary from individual to individual, due to differences in factors such as gender, age, drinking experience, tolerance, amount of food eaten, and ethnicity.

Experts generally believe that an alcohol overdose period can last for several hours. Most patients that have suffered from self-inflicted alcohol poisoning tend to be hospitalised and require observation by medical professionals in an emergency treatment facility.

What do you do if you have alcohol poisoning?

If you believe you have alcohol poisoning, contact emergency medical services immediately. Whilst waiting for help to arrive, be sure to do the following:

  • Stay alert and don’t panic.
  • Stay in an upright sitting position.
  • Stay awake.
  • Have someone close by monitor you until professional help arrives.
  • Once emergency medical responders arrive, provide any personal information they might need, as well as answers concerning what happened and other details of the incident.

What happens to your body during an alcohol overdose?

Alcohol is a depressant that works on your central nervous system by obstructing signals to your brain. This can lead to the hindering of automatic responses such as your breathing and gag reflex, especially in cases of alcohol overdose.

Symptoms typically exhibited by people suffering alcohol overdose include:

  • Bluish skin colour or paleness
  • Clammy skin
  • Coma
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Dulled responses such as no gag reflex
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Irregular breathing (this can be 10seconds or longer between breaths, or fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Seizures
  • Slow heart rate
  • Vomiting

What should I do if I suspect someone has overdosed?

Get medical assistance immediately and ensure the person in question stays awake and is breathing normally. In the event of vomiting, try to keep their airways clear by laying them on their side.

What can happen to someone with an alcohol overdose that goes untreated?

Alcohol overdose that goes untreated can result in:

  • Hypothermia
  • Hypoglycaemia
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Irregular breathing
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Death
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