What is it?
- Alcohol poisoning is a serious — and sometimes deadly — consequence of consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking too much too quickly can affect your breathing, heart rate and gag reflex and potentially lead to coma and death.
- Binge drinking — rapidly downing 5 or more drinks in a row — is the main cause of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can also occur when you accidentally ingest household products that contain alcohol.
- A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical attention. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call 999 right away.
- Treatment consists of providing breathing support and intravenous fluids and vitamins until the alcohol is completely eliminated from the body.
If you drink, have friends who drink or have children of any age, know the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning:
- Confusion, stupor
- Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
- Irregular breathing
- Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
- Low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Unconsciousness ("passing out")
It's not necessary for all of these symptoms to be present before you seek help. A person who is unconscious or can't be roused is at risk of dying.
Alcohol comes in several forms, including:
- Isopropyl alcohol, which is found in rubbing alcohol, lotions and some cleaning products
- Methanol, a common ingredient in antifreeze, paints and solvents
- Ethanol — found in alcoholic beverages, mouthwash and some medications
Although alcohol poisoning can occur when you accidentally — or even intentionally — consume household products containing alcohol, most alcohol poisoning results from drinking too many alcoholic beverages, especially in a short period of time.
How much is too much?
Unlike food, which can take hours to digest, alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body — long before most other nutrients. If you drink on an empty stomach, about 20 percent of the alcohol is absorbed directly from your stomach and can reach your brain in less than a minute.
Most alcohol, though, is processed by your liver. It takes about one hour for your liver to process (metabolize) the alcohol in one drink — defined as 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of beer, 4 to 5 ounces (118 to 148 milliliters) of wine or 1.5 ounce (44 milliliters) of 80-proof distilled spirits. Mixed drinks often contain more than one serving of alcohol and take even longer to metabolize.
The rate at which alcohol is processed can vary considerably from person to person and depends on a number of factors. In general, though, drinking more than one drink an hour gives your liver more than it can handle.
Binge drinking — usually defined as rapidly downing five drinks or more in a row — is especially dangerous. Drinking large quantities of alcohol so quickly means that you can consume a lethal dose before you pass out.
What happens to your body when you drink?
Alcohol depresses the nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing, heartbeat and your gag reflex, which keeps you from choking. Excessive alcohol intake can slow and, in some cases, shut down these functions. Your body temperature can also drop (hypothermia), leading to cardiac arrest. And your blood sugar level can fall low enough to cause seizures.
A number of factors can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning, including:
- Your age. Young teens and college students are most likely to binge drink, and because many are first-time or inexperienced drinkers, they're particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Yet contrary to popular belief, the majority of deaths from alcohol poisoning occur in people age 45 to 54.
- Your sex. Traditionally, boys and men have been far more likely to have alcohol poisoning — and to binge drink — than girls and women have. In recent years, however, the gap has narrowed. More women are drinking than in the past, and more are binge drinking. Women are also more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol in general because they produce less of an enzyme that slows the release of alcohol in the stomach.
- Your size and weight. The smaller and thinner your build, the more quickly your body absorbs alcohol, making you more susceptible to alcohol poisoning.
- Your overall health. Having health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes, makes you more vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol.
- Your food consumption. Having food in your stomach slightly slows — but doesn't prevent — alcohol from entering your bloodstream.
- Your drug use. Combining alcohol with other drugs — including some prescription medications — greatly increases your risk of a fatal alcohol overdose.
In addition to checking for visible signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, your doctor will likely order blood tests to check blood alcohol levels and identify other signs of alcohol toxicity, such as low blood sugar. A urine test also may help to confirm a diagnosis of alcohol poisoning.
Treatments and drugs
Alcohol poisoning treatment usually involves supportive care while your body rids itself of the alcohol. This typically includes:
- Careful monitoring
- Airway protection to prevent breathing or choking problems
- Oxygen therapy
- Administration of fluids through a vein (intravenously) to prevent dehydration
Home remedies for sobering up abound, but most are ineffective, and some can be dangerous. Here's what doesn't work:
- Black coffee
- A cold shower — the shock of cold can cause a loss of consciousness
- Walking it off
- Sleeping it off — you can lose consciousness while asleep
If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning, here's what to do:
- Stay with a person who is vomiting and try to keep him or her sitting up. If the person must lie down, make sure to turn his or her head to the side — this helps prevent choking. Try to keep the person awake to prevent loss of consciousness.
- Don't be afraid to get help for a friend, even if you think it won't be appreciated. Friends don't let friends drive drunk, and they also don't let them die of alcohol poisoning.