Alcohol Poisoning — Signs, Symptoms, and Cure

Alcohol poisoning is a condition where excess alcohol in the bloodstream causes areas of the brain involved with essential functions to shut down. Functions such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature. It is life-threatening and occurs when there is a large intake of alcohol for a short period of time. Commonly implicated are alcohol-containing drinks such as wine, liquor, beer, etc.

Deaths due to alcohol use in the US have greatly increased in the last two decades. According to the CDC, about 6 Americans die daily from alcohol poisoning, an average of 2200 deaths per year. Emergency visits due to alcohol poisoning also increased. Deaths from alcohol poisoning among males have increased by 27% and in females by 35%. Approximately 75% of alcohol poisoning deaths occur in people aged 35-64, and 76% of these deaths happen to be males. Non-Hispanic white Americans are believed to have a higher prevalence of the condition. Epidemiologists still believe that the figures underestimate the extent of the issue. This article will discuss everything you need to know about alcohol poisoning, how to treat it, and its prevention.

what is alcohol poisoning

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

During alcohol intake, your body processes alcohol immediately, unlike food, which takes hours. The alcohol then enters your bloodstream and increases your blood alcohol content (BAC). Because alcohol is toxic to the body, the liver works to break it down and get rid of it from the system. When there is an excessive intake of alcohol within a short period of time, the BAC rises faster than the liver’s ability to get rid of the toxins. The brain’s communication system is affected, and the life support functions it controls are altered because alcohol acts as a depressant. The excess alcohol reduces stimulation in the brain, and the depressing effect becomes more pronounced with each additional intake. Alcohol poisoning is the stage where the depressing effects affect functions such as breathing and consciousness.

It is important to note that BAC levels continue to rise 40 minutes after the last drink, and even if one does not feel the symptoms immediately after the last drink, the signs of alcohol poisoning may start to show later and persist for hours, a day, or more.

Alcohol poisoning is not the same as alcohol intoxication. These two occur on a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe. When there are mild impairments from a large alcohol intake, it is referred to as intoxication. Poisoning, on the other hand, occurs when the most severe effects are noticed. The legal definition of intoxication is a BAC of 0.8%, while that of poisoning is around 0.25–0.399%.

How Do You Get Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can affect anyone, and here are some common ways in which it can happen.

Binge Drinking

This is a major cause; it is a pattern of drinking that raises blood alcohol content by 0.8% or more. This happens after a female consumes 4 drinks and a male consumes 5 within two hours.

An alcoholic beverage containing about 14 grams of pure alcohol is defined as one drink.

Examples of standard drinks are:

  • Beer: 12 ounces (one can of beer) (5% alcohol)
  • Wine: 5 ounces (one glass of wine) (12% alcohol)
  • Hard liquor: 1.5 ounces (one shot of liquor; gin, whiskey, rum) (40% alcohol)

However, one drink’s alcohol content could be significantly higher than those in the previous list; for instance, cocktail drinks

Combining Alcohol with Medications

Your alcohol overdose risk increases if you take opioids or sedative hypnotics (such as sleeping pills or anxiety drugs) along with alcohol. It can also be risky to combine alcohol and over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines. Like alcohol, all of these drugs are depressants that slow down the central nervous system, which includes the brain. Thus, combining them results in a considerably stronger effect.

Drinking on an Empty Stomach

Alcohol poisoning is more likely to occur if you don’t eat before or while drinking. Your small intestine is where alcohol is most quickly absorbed. Your body absorbs alcohol more slowly the longer it remains in your stomach. Alcohol cannot enter your small intestine rapidly if there is already food in your stomach.

Risk Factors Influencing Severity and Impact

Since we are all different and alcohol does not affect us all in exactly the same ways, here are some factors that play a role in the development, severity, and impact of alcohol poisoning.

  1. Age: College-age individuals and teenagers frequently consume large amounts of alcohol at one time, leading to alcohol poisoning due to the restrictions that prevent them from drinking freely and leisurely. Furthermore, prescription drug use is more common among middle-aged individuals than younger ones, which may exacerbate alcohol poisoning. Additionally, older adults metabolize alcohol slower.
  2. Gender: In general, men drink more than women do; men between the ages of 35 and 64 account for the majority of alcohol poisoning deaths, according to the CDC.
  3. Tolerance levels: Some people have an alcohol tolerance, which means that they may not experience the same psychological and physical effects of alcohol consumption as they used to. This does not mean their BAC is lower; rather, it simply means that they respond to alcohol in a different way.
  4. Weight: The less you weigh, the more affected you are by alcohol.

Understanding Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

The term ‘blood alcohol concentration’ (BAC) refers to the amount of alcohol that enters your bloodstream as a result of consuming alcohol-containing beverages. It can range from 0% (no alcohol) to over 4.0% (fatal). A 0.08 BAC means the blood is 0.08% alcohol by volume, and a 0.10% means for every 1000 parts of blood, there is 1 part alcohol. A breathalyzer measures the BAC in grams per 210 liters of breath. The BAC is used to determine an individual’s level of impairment due to alcohol consumption, but it is not a completely accurate indicator.

List of BAC Ranges and Corresponding Effects


Effects Experienced
0.00% Sober.
0.00- 0.02% Slight mood elevation.
0.02- 0.04% Light headed: altered mood, slight euphoria, loss of shyness, slight judgment impairment, feeling ‘high’.
0.04- 0.06% Buzzed: sensation of warmth, relaxation, lowered inhibitions and alertness, exaggerated emotions (positive or negative), minor impairment in reasoning and memory.
0.06- 0.09% Legally impaired: slight loss of balance, fatigue, euphoria, speech, hearing, and vision impairment; reduced reaction time.
0.10- 0.15% Drunk: the reduction in the ‘high’ feeling and depressive effects (anxiety, dysphoria, restlessness, and feeling unwell) set in; slurred speech, slowed thinking, severe motor impairment and loss of physical control, blurred vision.
0.16- 0.19% Very Drunk: strong depression state, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and confusion; the drinker appears to be sloppy drunk.
0.21- 0.25% Dazed and confused: not alert in time and place, requiring help to stand up or walk, unaffected by and insensitive to pain.
0.25- 0.30% Stupor: mental, physical, and sensory functions are greatly impaired, may experience a sudden loss of consciousness.
0.30- 0.40% Alcohol poisoning: loss of consciousness occurs; life threatening symptoms.
0.40% and above Coma: death occurs 50% the time due to respiratory arrest or surgical amnesia.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

There are different categories of symptoms that can be seen, including alcohol poisoning symptoms next day. Here are some of them:

Physical Symptoms

  1. Nausea and vomiting: the body’s attempt at excreting toxins, which increases dehydration risk.
  2. Seizures or fits: require immediate medical attention.
  3. Slow or irregular breathing
  4. Hypothermia: a drop in body temperature, associated with pale, cold, clammy skin
  5. Hypoglycemia
  6. Bluish skin, lips or fingers
  7. Impaired gag reflex

Mental Symptoms

  1. Severe confusion and disorientation
  2. Unconsciousness
  3. Stupor
  4. Coma

Other times, symptoms can be delayed and felt in the days following the binge. These include:

  1. Severe dehydration
  2. Intense headaches
  3. Fatigue
  4. Anxiety, depression, and anger issues

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms vs. Drunk

This can sometimes be a little hard to tell as some symptoms are common to both, such as nausea, vomiting, passing out, and blurry visions. But knowing the difference can be life-saving.

Symptoms Alcohol Poisoning Drunkenness
Seizures, slowed or irregular breathing, bluish skin Present Absent
Nausea and vomiting Present, repeated episodes May be present
Speech and Coordination Totally unable to stand, and speech is not only slurring but completely unintelligible Swaying and loss of coordination, slurring speech
Mental state Severely compromised and confused Mild mental impairment
Risks and complications Can be fatal, respiratory depression, aspiration, choking Temporary discomfort, which they recover from

How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?

The effects of alcohol poisoning can last from several hours to a day or even more. This would influence the metabolic ability of the body for other routine processes.

Long-Term Consequences of Alcohol Poisoning

The prolonged effects of alcohol poisoning are evident in the way the body responds to it. The body’s organs react differently to this poisoning, which can be observed. Some long term consequences of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety

Apart from these long-term consequences, there are some other delayed fatal consequences that could be really life-threatening to the individual affected. This include:

  • Severe vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Can You Die From Alcohol Poisoning the Day After?

It is unlikely that you will die from alcohol poisoning the day after. Death traced to this could be associated with other underlying medical conditions, and in some cases of severe and prolonged alcohol poisoning, there could be damage to some organs in the body, which would eventually result in fatal consequences such as loss of consciousness and death.

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning can make an individual feel ill and unwell. There is a need to understand the intervention required to ameliorate the effects of alcohol intoxication.

Immediate Steps to Take If Alcohol Poisoning Is Suspected

If you see any symptom of alcohol poisoning in a person, you should do the following immediately:

  • Call emergency services for help
  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Try to keep the person awake and sitting up
  • If they are conscious, provide them with water

Medical Procedures for Alcohol Intoxication

A patient with alcohol intoxication must be given specific medical aids.

  • Gastric lavage: This alcohol intoxication medical procedure involves passing a tube through the mouth (orogastric) or through the nose (nasogastric) to the stomach. The stomach contents are flushed with saline solutions and then suctioned out. By reducing the concentration and quality of alcohol in the stomach before it is absorbed, you can decrease the amount that will ultimately reach your bloodstream.
  • Intravenous fluids: The patient’s metabolism of alcohol is increased, and awakening time is shortened, through the use of intravenous fluids, particularly crystalloids.
  • Monitoring vital signs: A patient with alcohol poisoning needs to have their vitals monitored closely to ensure optimal breathing and other basic life functions.

Long-Term Care

There is really no alcohol poisoning cure, as many may think. The patient can manage and reduce the symptoms effectively, but if not done efficiently, the long-term effects may still impact them negatively.

  • Rehabilitation and counseling: Alcohol counseling involves the use of strategic behavioral patterns to help an individual change behaviors that result in the overuse of alcohol. These patterns could include skills on how to stop drinking, building social support systems, and avoiding triggers.
  • Preventive measures for future incidents: Is alcohol poison? As many may ask, it is not a poison like any other toxin. However, if not used in a proper way, it can result in severe effects. There is a need to know the maximum level of alcohol intake that will prevent intoxication. The intake of alcohol and its effects differ from person to person, so preventive measures to ensure maximum control over its use are essential.

How to Treat Alcohol Poisoning at Home

In case you do not have direct access to a medical facility, there are some things you could do to help a person with alcohol poisoning at home.

  1. Monitor vital signs: The vital signs will keep you informed on the state of health of the person.
  2. Prevent choking: The state of a person with alcohol can get critical if the person chokes on his/her own vomitus. Ensure the person is sitting up to avoid this.
  3. Keeping the person warm: You can provide additional support by keeping the person warm all through.

Is There a Cure for Alcohol Poisoning?

The management of alcohol poisoning is not exactly a straightforward process. In hospital settings, the patients are allowed to gradually metabolize and eliminate alcohol as their symptoms are treated. In severe cases, the body may require dialysis to completely remove alcohol from the bloodstream.

Prevention and Responsible Drinking

Alcohol poisoning is largely preventable. How do you get alcohol poisoning? This is a question that will help you understand how to prevent it. Alcohol intoxication occurs when you binge drink within a short time. Some of these tips will help:

  1. Moderate drinking: If you really want to take alcohol, reduce the quantity to a minimal level that will not result in intoxication.
  2. Avoid binge drinking: You can drink over a long period of time. You metabolize the alcohol in bits this way without getting overwhelmed by it.
  3. Eating and drinking: A good practice would be to eat while drinking and even after drinking. If your stomach is empty, the alcohol will be absorbed faster into your bloodstream, resulting in intoxication for you.
  4. Staying hydrated: Alcohol is a diuretic that could result in dehydration. Intaking water during and after drinking alcohol will help you stay hydrated.

Public Health Campaigns and Education

Awareness is an important tool in preventing chronic alcohol intoxication. Some people are confused about why it’s important to prevent intoxication, while others are unsure about how to do it. Public health education with alcohol poisoning as the subject matter can go a long way toward preventing intoxication.

Seeking Help for Alcohol Addiction

Just like any other habit, alcohol intake can be addictive. There is a need to seek help from the right set of professionals in order to make remarkable progress. Counseling sessions will definitely help to provide a strategic approach to reducing the incidence of alcohol poisoning. Depending on where you reside, there are specific government agencies that can help with this.

Myths and Misconceptions

There are numerous myths and misconceptions about alcohol poisoning out there. Some of these are due to a lack of awareness and knowledge of how this works. Here are some:

  1. Sleeping it off is safe. This can be dangerous. Choking on vomit is a serious effect of alcohol poisoning due to the inability to control the gag reflex effectively. Sleeping would be worse if it happened.
  2. A cold shower or coffee can wake someone up. This is largely untrue. A shower or cup of coffee does not expedite a person’s sobering process.
  3. Alcohol is not as harmful as other drugs. Alcohol intake over a long period of time can predispose you to some diseases, such as cancer.


Alcohol poisoning is a common phenomenon that has increasingly become popular over the years. Most people end up in the ED due to their own alcohol intoxication, which could have been avoided by them. Individual’s symptoms determine the treatments for alcohol poisoning.

The best approach to alcohol poisoning is prevention. One can still consume alcohol without going through a painful intoxication process. This is possible with proper awareness and education among the masses. There are also dedicated centers with available professionals ready to help in cases of need. Seek help and achieve the goal of beating repeated alcohol intoxication.

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