What to Know About Alcohol Poisoning and How to Treat It

Medically Reviewed By Darragh O'Carroll, MD
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Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks so much alcohol that it becomes dangerously toxic to their body. Signs and symptoms include confusion, a loss of consciousness, slow breathing, low body temperature, and vomiting. Do not try to treat this life threatening condition at home. Call 911. Alcohol overdose is another name for alcohol poisoning. Anyone who drinks any kind of alcohol too quickly or in very large quantities is at risk of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking and high intensity drinking are most likely to cause alcohol poisoning.

In this article, learn more about blood alcohol concentration (BAC), how alcohol poisoning progresses, and how it differs from being drunk or tipsy. This article also explores possible complications and explains the type of medical treatment necessary for alcohol poisoning.

Understanding alcohol poisoning

double vision of hand holding drink
Liliya Rodnikova/Stocksy United

When you drink alcohol, your stomach quickly absorbs it into your bloodstream. The liver pulls alcohol out of the blood and processes it so that the body can get rid of it. This processing takes time.

If you consume alcohol at a faster rate than your liver can process it, the level of alcohol in your blood will become higher and higher. Even after you stop drinking or pass out, your stomach and intestines will continue absorbing alcohol for quite some time.

Once your BAC reaches 0.16%, you can show signs of alcohol poisoning. That BAC is twice the legal definition of intoxication.

Alcohol’s effects on the body

Despite many people gaining a pleasant intoxicating effect from alcohol, the substance is a depressant. Specifically, it slows areas of your brain that are responsible for basic life functions. This includes breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and gag reflex, which prevents you from choking.

The higher your BAC, the greater is the depressant effect on these functions. Alcohol poisoning symptoms are the result of these depressant effects.

Binge drinking and high intensity drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking means consuming four drinks in 2 hours for a female or consuming five drinks in 2 hours for a male, according to a summary of drinking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). High intensity drinking is consuming two or more times this amount.

People who have not previously consumed alcohol have a minimal tolerance for the substance, and they can be dangerously vulnerable to alcohol poisoning. The risk of alcohol poisoning also depends on your size, your tolerance for alcohol, and the amount of food in your stomach. Food slows alcohol absorption, but it will not stop it. 

Fatalities from alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. Call 911 if someone is displaying any symptoms of alcohol poisoning, which can include slow breathing and passing out.

Life saving treatment in a hospital is necessary. Without emergency treatment, alcohol poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage or death. In the United States, about 2,200 people die each year from alcohol poisoning.

Do not try to treat this life threatening condition at home. There are no alcohol poisoning home remedies. Some people, especially young or underage individuals,

may hesitate to call 911. However, there can be deadly consequences of not getting help. The only cure for alcohol poisoning is emergency medical treatment.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning result from very high levels of alcohol depressing critical bodily functions. These functions include breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and gag reflex.

Some signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • clammy skin, a very low body temperature, and bluish or pale skin
  • confusion, a lack of coordination, and slowed or dulled responses
  • a loss of consciousness or responsiveness
  • seizures
  • slow or irregular breathing
  • a slow or irregular heart rate
  • vomiting

Alcohol poisoning is life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning listed above. A person does not need to exhibit all of these symptoms to be in danger of dying or sustaining permanent brain damage.

It is dangerous to let someone with a very high BAC “sleep it off,” warns the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Alcohol poisoning vs. being drunk

Most people do not associate the initial pleasant effects of alcohol with being drunk. Feeling relaxed or a little sleepy is a mild impairment that some people might call being “tipsy” or “buzzed.” This corresponds to a BAC of up to 0.05%.

Above that level, impairment turns into intoxication. Most people would call this being drunk. 

Alcohol poisoning is severe or life threatening impairment. Several functions — including speech, balance, coordination, judgment, and reaction times — are significantly impaired. Memory gaps or blackouts may also occur, and the person may vomit.

The BAC for alcohol poisoning is anything over 0.16%.

Diagnosing alcohol poisoning

To diagnose alcohol poisoning, your doctor will perform an exam and order testing.

Some questions that your doctor may ask you or a companion include:

  • What type of alcohol have you consumed, such as beer, wine, or distilled spirits?
  • How much alcohol have you consumed?
  • Over what time frame have you consumed this amount of alcohol?
  • Have you also used recreational drugs?
  • What medications do you take?

The physical exam will focus on vital signs, especially breathing, and neurological status. Some tests that your doctor may order include:

  • blood chemistry and blood sugar levels
  • electrocardiogram
  • liver function tests
  • toxicology panel, including alcohol level and the presence of other drugs
  • urine tests

A mental health or psychiatric evaluation is usually part of the diagnosis once the person is sober and lucid.

Stages of alcohol poisoning

The NIAAA describes the stages of impairment as the BAC increases. The stages are as follows: 

BACEffects
Mild impairment is 0.00–0.05%.People at this stage experience pleasant effects of alcohol. These include relaxation and even mild sleepiness. There are also mild speech, memory, attention, balance, and coordination impairments.
Increasing impairment is 0.06–0.15%.People at this stage begin to feel drunk. This includes a worsening impairment of speech, memory, attention, balance, and coordination. Driving skills and judgment are significantly impaired. Some people become aggressive.
Severe impairment, or alcohol poisoning, is 0.16–0.30%.People at this stage have a dangerous impairment of driving skills, reaction times, judgment, balance, coordination, speech, and memory. Blackouts in memory, a loss of consciousness, and vomiting can also occur.
Life threatening impairment is 0.31–0.45%.People at this stage are at significant risk of death due to the suppression of vital body functions. This includes choking on vomit due to a lack of a gag reflex.

Binge drinking and high intensity drinking

Consuming alcohol in large amounts or faster than your body can process it leads to alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking and high intensity drinking are the main ways this occurs.

For females, binge drinking means having four drinks in 2 hours. For males, it means having five drinks in 2 hours. High intensity drinking is generally twice this amount or more.

One drink can be any of the following:

  • 12 fluid ounces (fl oz) of beer that is 5% alcohol by volume (ABV)
  • 8–9 fl oz of beer that is 7% ABV
  • 5 fl oz of wine that is 12% ABV
  • 1.5 fl oz of a distilled spirit that is 40% ABV or 80 proof

It is possible to consume a fatal amount of alcohol before passing out or losing consciousness. Your stomach will continue to absorb alcohol into your bloodstream even after you stop drinking.

It also takes time for your liver to process alcohol and eliminate it from your body. This means that your BAC will continue to rise and remain high for a long period.

Is daily drinking worse than binge drinking, or vice versa? Find out here.

Factors that increase the chance of alcohol poisoning

Anyone who drinks large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time is at risk of alcohol poisoning. Teenagers and young adults often binge drink or engage in high intensity drinking.

In addition to the speed and amount of drinking, your risk of alcohol poisoning can also depend on the following factors:

  • the amount of food in your stomach, as food will slow but not stop alcohol absorption
  • drugs or medications you have taken, as some have additive effects with alcohol
  • sex, as females usually require less alcohol than males to overdose on it
  • your overall health
  • your sensitivity to or tolerance of alcohol, as chronic alcohol use can increase the amount of alcohol you can consume before overdosing on it
  • size and weight, as smaller people can overdose on less alcohol

Learn about the signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder here.

Alcohol poisoning prevention

To prevent alcohol poisoning, drink alcohol in moderation. This generally means having one drink per day for females or having two drinks per day for males. Consume alcoholic drinks slowly, as well. Do not drink on an empty stomach.

Talk with your teenagers or young adult children about the dangers of binge drinking and high intensity drinking. This includes discussing drinking games, which can easily lead to alcohol poisoning. Also, emphasize the importance of knowing when enough is enough, and discuss how to intervene if a friend is drinking too much or too quickly.

Get help for a problematic drinking habit by contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 800-662-4357.

Alcohol poisoning treatment

Get medical help straight away for signs and symptoms of alcohol overdose. As with other drug overdoses, treating alcohol poisoning requires hospitalization for the careful monitoring of vital functions while the body rids itself of alcohol.

Call 911

If possible, give emergency personnel information about the type and amount of alcohol the person consumed. Also, let them know how long it has been since the person stopped consuming alcohol.

A major concern while you wait for help is the person choking on vomit.

After you call 911, follow these steps:

  • Stay with the person.
  • Keep the person warm.
  • Keep the person sitting upright on the ground and awake.
  • Lean them forward if they begin to vomit.
  • Turn the person on their side if they must lie down. This will help prevent them from choking on their own vomit.

Treatment in a healthcare setting may include:

  • IV fluids, which enter the body through a vein, to prevent or treat dehydration
  • oxygen therapy
  • sedatives, in case of aggression or agitation

Home remedies for alcohol poisoning

There are no home remedies for alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. There is nothing that you can do to counteract alcohol’s toxic effects or speed up its elimination from the body.

Many so-called home remedies, such as coffee, can make the situation worse. If you suspect someone that has alcohol poisoning, call 911.

Complications of alcohol poisoning

Complications of alcohol poisoning can be serious and life threatening.

Some possible fatal complications include:

People who drink heavily can develop additional complications not listed here. According to the CDC, these include alcohol use disorder, cirrhosis, and cancer.

Outlook

Most people recover from alcohol poisoning without medical complications. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported by the NIAAA, nearly 26% of people in the U.S. ages 18 years and older report binge drinking, which is a significant cause of alcohol poisoning.

About 2,200 people die each year from alcohol poisoning, based on a 2015 CDC report of alcohol poisoning deaths in 2010–2012. Most deaths — about 76% — are in males ages 35–64 years.  

Factors that can alter the chance of alcohol poisoning recovery include:

  • history of alcohol and other drug overdoses
  • BAC
  • overdose-related trauma
  • organ damage

Summary

Alcohol poisoning is the presence of so much alcohol in the blood that it alters the function of the brain and other organs. Signs and symptoms include confusion, slow breathing, a loss of consciousness, and vomiting.

Binge drinking and high intensity drinking are two types of drinking that can lead to alcohol poisoning.

A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical care to monitor their airway, breathing, and circulation. Healthcare personnel may administer IV fluids and oxygen to help prevent complications as the body clears the alcohol.

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Medical Reviewer: Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Feb 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.