What is alcohol poisoning?
You may have had a hangover and recovered just fine. But alcohol poisoning is dangerous and can be life-threatening. It happens when a person drinks a large quantity of alcohol in a short time.
Alcohol poisoning can result from drinking any type of alcohol, including beer, wine or liquor. As your stomach digests and absorbs alcohol, the alcohol enters your bloodstream, and your alcohol blood level begins to rise. Your liver breaks down alcohol. But when blood alcohol levels are high, your overwhelmed liver can’t remove the toxins quickly enough.
The extra alcohol in the bloodstream is a depressant. That means it reduces normal function. In this case, it affects the parts of the brain that control vital body functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. As blood alcohol continues to rise, the depressant effect is more substantial.
Who is most at risk for alcohol poisoning?
Every year, at least 2,200 people die from alcohol poisoning. Statistics show men between the ages of 35 and 64 are typically the ones who die from it. The majority of people who die from alcohol poisoning are white.
However, anyone can get alcohol poisoning. Some other important factors include the drinker’s:
- Amount of food in the stomach.
- Previous drinking experience.
What causes alcohol poisoning?
Too much alcohol in the blood causes alcohol poisoning. The condition is also called alcohol overdose. Determining how much alcohol is in the blood is measured by blood-alcohol content (BAC) as a percentage.
It doesn’t take a lot of alcohol in the blood to cause problems:
- Between 0.0 and 0.05%: This level is considered a mild impairment. Symptoms typically include some difficulty speaking and remembering things. The person may seem clumsy, and they may begin to feel a little sleepy.
- Between 0.06 and 0.15%: The person has reached increased impairment. The effects of mild impairment get worse. A significant impact on driving skills begins to show up.
- Between 0.16 and 0.30%: The effects of increased impairment get worse. Judgment and decision-making skills become very impaired. The person may suffer from blackouts. Vomiting is common.
- Between 0.31 and 0.45%: The situation is now life-threatening. At this point, the person has a significant risk of dying from the depressant effect causing vital life functions to slow too much.
What are the symptoms of alcohol poisoning?
Because of how dangerous alcohol poisoning can be, it is important to understand the symptoms. Common signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Bluish-colored or cold, clammy skin, especially around the lips and fingernails.
- Confusion, slowed responses, lack of coordination or being unable to walk.
- Difficulty remaining conscious.
- Irregular pulse, heartbeat or breathing (intervals of 10 seconds or more between breaths).
- Problems with bladder or bowel control (incontinence).
- Seizures, vomiting or choking.
- Strong alcohol odor.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do you test to see if someone has alcohol in their system?
There are two main ways to check someone’s blood-alcohol content:
- Breathalyzer: As you drink, the alcohol goes through your bloodstream to your lungs. There, it evaporates into the lungs, and you breathe it out. As you blow into the breathalyzer, it can estimate your BAC by how much alcohol detects in your breath.
- Blood test: A lab technician draws a small amount of blood with a needle. The technician then analyzes for the BAC. The blood test is most accurate within six to 12 hours after the last drink you consume.
Management and Treatment
How do you treat alcohol poisoning?
If someone has alcohol poisoning, they may need lifesaving treatment right away. In a medical setting, healthcare professionals will use:
- IV fluids: Providers give intravenous (IV) fluids to treat dehydration. Fluids can also increase blood sugar levels.
- Oxygen: Providers can give oxygen using a nasal cannula (flexible tube clipped to the nose). They may put a small tube into the windpipe if a person has trouble breathing.
- Stomach pumping: Using a tube, healthcare providers can clear the stomach of toxins.
- Blood filtration: If kidneys aren’t able to do the job, providers may start dialysis to filter alcohol from the blood.
What should I do if I see someone who may have alcohol poisoning?
You can do several things to help someone who shows signs of alcohol poisoning:
- Seek help: Call 911 for help.
- Keep them awake: Stay with the person and keep them awake.
- Provide water: Have them sip water to keep them hydrated if they are awake.
- Keep them warm: Cover them with a warm blanket. Alcohol poisoning can cause hypothermia.
- Explain your actions: Talk to them and let them know why you are doing things. Otherwise, they may become belligerent.
- Prevent choking: If they are unconscious, turn them on their side. If the person vomits, they won’t choke on it.
When paramedics arrive, be ready to tell them what you can about the person. You might need to describe how much the person drank or what they’ve been doing since you called 911.
How do you prevent alcohol poisoning?
To prevent alcohol poisoning, limit your alcohol consumption. You need to know when enough is enough. If you or a friend are drinking, pay attention to how much you consume and how quickly. If a friend appears to be drinking too much too fast, try to intervene and limit how much more they have. Moderation is always important. Drink no more than one alcoholic beverage an hour.
Additionally, you can prevent alcohol poisoning by:
- Avoid drinking games: Games can put pressure on participants to binge drink.
- Stay hydrated: Drink water after every alcoholic beverage.
- Don’t mix alcohol and medicine: Never drink alcohol while taking prescription medications.
- Eat first: Don’t drink on an empty stomach.
- Stay alert: Avoid a drink if you don’t know its contents or if it’s mixed with energy drinks.
Call for help if you suspect someone has a drinking problem. The National Treatment Referral Routing Service is 1.800.662.HELP (4357).
Outlook / Prognosis
What can happen from alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is serious. Someone who has too much alcohol to the point of an overdose can have:
- Blackouts or amnesia.
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can cause seizures.
- Hypothermia (low body temperature).
- Irregular or stopped heartbeat.
- Loss of consciousness, which could quickly lead to death.
- Severe vomiting, which can lead to dehydration, seizures, permanent brain damage or death.
When should I see a doctor?
If a friend or loved one appears to have alcohol poisoning, call 911 right away. The sooner they get treatment, the more likely you can prevent severe damage.
If you or someone you know has a drinking problem, seek help. The long-term effects of alcohol use disorder and alcoholism can be devastating. Get help now before things get worse.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
In moderation, alcohol can be OK. However, when peer pressure begins or drinking becomes more out of control, your health can be at risk. Limit your drinking, and if alcohol is a problem, seek help.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition.
This document was last reviewed on: 10/15/2020