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Alcohol Poisoning and Overdose: Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Overdose

5 min read · 12 sections

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used mind-altering substances in the U.S–as well as an extremely dangerous drug.1 Excessive alcohol use can result in alcohol intoxication, alcohol poisoning, or alcohol overdose. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Mental confusion and stupor.
  • Difficulty remaining conscious.
  • Vomiting.
  • Seizure.
  • Slowed or irregular breathing.
  • Clammy skin or paleness.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Loss of gag reflex.
  • Low body temperature (may be indicated by chills or shivers).

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, also commonly referred to as alcohol overdose, occurs when a person has so much alcohol in their blood (i.e., a high blood alcohol concentration [BAC]) that the areas of the brain that control basic life support functions begins to shut down.2alcoholism

This may be as a result of binge drinking in which a person drinks too much alcohol in a short amount of time. Alcohol intoxication, poisoning, and overdose occurs on a spectrum ranging from mild to moderate impairments such as slurred speech and balance problems to serious and lethal issues such as coma and death. The amount of alcohol a person needs to drink for a potentially dangerous or life-threatening overdose to occur can vary by person and is affected by an age, drinking experience, gender, how much food they’ve eaten, and ethnicity.3

Binge Drinking and Alcohol Toxicity

While anyone that drinks too much alcohol too quickly could be at risk for alcohol poisoning, those who engage in binge drinking are particularly at risk.2 Binge drinking is associated with a host of health risks, such as chronic diseases (e.g., high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, liver disease), unintended pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, various cancers (e.g., breast, colon, liver, rectum, etc.), memory and learning problems, and more.4 However, given the impairments binge drinking produces, it also increases the likelihood of myriad acute consequences, including death or injury due to overdose.5

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s BAC to 0.08g/dl or more. This generally occurs when men have more than 5 drinks or women have more than 4 drinks in approximately 2 hours. As a reference, one drink means 12 ounces of 5% beer, 8 ounces of 7% malt liquor, 5 ounces of 12% wine, or 1.5 ounces of 40% spirits.4

Remember, there is no safe level of alcohol use. Alcohol’s effects on the body can be detrimental no matter the amount you consume. Even drinking within low to moderate limits can increase your risk of diseases such as different types of cancer and some types of cardiovascular disease.6

What BAC Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

BAC and the number of drinks you consume are very rough indicators of impairment. Alcohol intoxication can vary by tolerance (meaning whether your body is accustomed to the presence of alcohol through repeated use), your gender, body weight, body fat percentage, and other factors.

How Much Alcohol Can Kill You?

BACs between 0.60% and 0.80% are commonly fatal.7 However, the amount of alcohol it takes to kill a person can vary by individual factors. It’s important to be aware that binge drinking, or having 5 drinks for men or 4 drinks for women within a period of two hours, can cause a BAC that is higher than 0.08%.

However, death is not the only consequence of excessive alcohol use. Alcohol can be especially harmful to a person’s health, and over half of alcohol-related deaths are actually due to the resulting health complications–such as cancer or liver disease–of consuming too much alcohol over an extended amount of time.

Aside from the chronic health conditions that may result from sustained and excessive alcohol use, short-term effects of excessive drinking can include polysubstance overdoses (these are overdoses involving multiple substances), suicide, and vehicle crashes.8

Rather than wondering how much alcohol can kill someone, it may be more useful to ask how much alcohol can contribute negatively to your health in any way–and making a decision on whether to drink (or how much to drink) based on your conclusions.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Poisoning

Aside from binge drinking, risk factors for alcohol poisoning vary among individuals and are often related to how alcohol is absorbed and metabolized. A few of these factors include:2

  • Gender.
  • Speed of drinking.
  • Age.
  • Sensitivity (i.e., tolerance) for alcohol.
  • Medications taken.
  • Amount of food eaten.

Mixing sedative-hypnotics (e.g., benzodiazepines such as diazepam [e.g., Valium] and alprazolam [e.g., Xanax]) and/or opioids (e.g., oxycodone and morphine) can also increase the risk of overdose. Combining other substances with alcohol intensifies the individual effects and can produce an overdose even with moderate amounts of alcohol.2

What to Do if Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning

If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, act quickly. It’s unnecessary to wait for all of the aforementioned symptoms or until the person has passed out, and tactics such as hot coffee, walking, and cold showers don’t reverse the effects of alcohol overdose.2

When an alcohol overdose is suspected:2

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Collect information while waiting for emergency medical personnel if possible, e.g., amount and type of alcohol used, any other substances or medications consumed, existing health conditions, and allergies to medications.
  • Stay with the person and position them on the ground in a sitting or upright position to prevent choking and falls.
  • Monitor vomiting and encourage the person to lean forward to prevent choking. If the person is lying down or unconscious, roll them onto one side with an ear to the ground to prevent choking while vomiting.

Alcohol Poisoning Diagnosis

An alcohol poisoning diagnosis equates to injury of oneself as a result of alcohol intoxication. People receive this diagnosis based on the alcohol poisoning symptoms and signs of intoxication they experience, the accounts of others who witnessed the person’s increased alcohol use, and the presence of complications that need immediate medical care, such as accidents, intentional self-harm, or severe medical issues.9

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) diagnostic criteria for alcohol intoxication includes:10

    • Recent ingestion of alcohol.
    • Clinically significant problematic behavioral, psychological, or social changes (i.e., aggressiveness, mood swings) that occurred during or shortly after alcohol use.
    • Displaying signs of alcohol intoxication (see section below).
    • Another physical or psychiatric disorder is not the reason for these issues.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

The signs of alcohol intoxication, or poisoning, can vary from person to person but tend to be observable and obvious. Someone who is intoxicated may not necessarily display every symptom. The APA explains that the alcohol intoxication symptoms and signs include:10

  • Slurred speech.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Unsteady gait.
  • Nystagmus, which refers to when your eyes make repetitive and uncontrolled movements.
  • Impaired attention or memory.
  • Stupor or coma.

Severe intoxication or poisoning may lead to symptoms of overdose, which indicate that there is so much alcohol in a person’s bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions are at risk of shutting down. Symptoms of alcohol overdose include:2,11

  • Mental confusion and stupor.
  • Difficulty remaining conscious.
  • Vomiting.
  • Seizure.
  • Slowed or irregular breathing.
  • Clammy skin or paleness.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Loss of gag reflex.
  • Unresponsiveness and/or coma.
  • Low body temperature (may be indicated by chills or shivers).

Is Passing Out a Sign of Alcohol Overdose?

Passing out, or loss of consciousness, may occur while a person is intoxicated and can be a critical sign of a dangerous alcohol overdose. A person who has had too much alcohol and cannot be woken up or can only be woken up for short periods of time may be experiencing a life-threatening overdose and should receive attention.2

When to Go to the Hospital for Alcohol Poisoning

Severe alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that requires immediate supportive care. It is dangerous to assume that an unconscious person will “sleep it off.”2

Alcohol can irritate a person’s stomach, causing them to vomit–even when they are unconscious. In such cases, someone is in danger of choking on their own vomit, leading to asphyxiation and subsequent brain damage.2 Never leave a person alone who you suspect has overdosed on any drug, including alcohol. Call 911 right away and seek medical attention.

If you’re not sure, it is best to call 911 and describe the symptoms you observe—the dispatcher can advise you on your next best course of action.

What is Alcohol Poisoning Treatment?

Treatment for alcohol intoxication, poisoning, and overdose typically takes place in the emergency care setting and is supportive, which means it is designed to help manage symptoms and avoid complications. Emergency medical staff will take steps to ensure a person’s medical stability and safety to help them recover and survive.

Treatment may involve observation, monitoring, glucose administration (if glucose levels are low), administering medications, fluid hydration via IV, and frequent assessment of breathing. When a person becomes sober again, staff may evaluate for the presence of an alcohol or substance use disorder and recommend appropriate next steps, which may include referring the person for further evaluation or treatment.12

Is There Medication for Alcohol Poisoning?

Treatment of acute alcohol intoxication is intended to preserve respiration and cardiovascular function until alcohol levels fall and a patient is stabilized. Medical staff will monitor vital functions, protect the airway from aspiration, and manage any hypoglycemia and thiamin deficiency. An individual may receive sedative medications if they appear agitated, violent, or uncooperative; however, as these could complicate and delay the elimination of alcohol from the person’s system, other approaches are recommended.12

Can the Stomach be Pumped for Alcohol?

Yes. However, both stomach pumping and induced vomiting are rarely used, and only in extreme cases, such as substantial ingestion that occurred within the preceding 30-60 minutes or when other drug ingestion is suspected. In extreme cases, where supportive care is ineffective, hemodialysis may also be used; however, this is quite uncommon.12

How Many Days Does it Take to Recover from Alcohol Overdose?

It is difficult to predict exactly how long it will take a person to recover from an alcohol overdose. Time helps a person recover, but the actual duration for recovery can vary depending on someone’s weight, sex, metabolism, age, the amount and strength of alcohol consumed, how much food a person has ingested, their alcohol tolerance, and other factors.2

Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

How to Get Help After Alcohol Poisoning

Experiencing severe alcohol poisoning may be a sign that a person has a problem with alcohol misuse and may need to seek treatment for a possible alcohol use disorder. People can experience alcohol poisoning after one time of heavy drinking; it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an addiction. But if a person experiences alcohol withdrawal or is unable to control their alcohol use and continues to drink despite negative consequences to their family, work, or social life, then they may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).13

Treatment may include medication to help reduce drinking and prevent relapse, attending 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or entering an inpatient/residential rehab or outpatient treatment facility. An appropriate level of treatment can be determined by medical staff and addiction treatment professionals. During treatment, counseling and other therapies will help change your behaviors and understand your relationship with alcohol, as well as help you develop coping skills to prevent relapse.13

American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers state-of-the-art rehab facilities for treating AUDs and is a leading provider of alcohol detox and treatment across the nation. Our treatment programs are tailored to your unique needs and adjusted throughout the length of treatment. We also offer dual diagnosis programs for people struggling with addiction and co-occurring mental health issues (like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders) and provide evidence-based therapies to help people recover from addiction.

How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning

The best way to avoid alcohol poisoning is to not drink or to limit your alcohol consumption. If you choose to drink, it’s a good idea to drink responsibly and stick to the guidelines for moderating drinking that are mentioned above. But even if you drink within these guidelines, you may still have problems with alcohol if you drink too fast, take medication or other drugs, or have certain preexisting medical conditions.2,14 If you feel that you have trouble managing your alcohol intake, it is a good idea to talk to your physician.

Statistics on Alcohol Poisoning

Some statistics on alcohol poisoning and alcohol overdose include:15,16

  • According to the CDC, there are 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths each year in the US.
  • On average, 6 people die in the US each day due to alcohol poisoning.
  • 76% of alcohol poisoning deaths happen to people between the ages of 35-64.
  • Around 76% of people who die of alcohol poisoning are men.
  • Most of the deaths occur in non-Hispanic white people.
  • Alaska has the most deaths due to alcohol poisoning, while Alabama has the least.
  • Alcoholism is a key factor in 30% of alcohol poisoning deaths.


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