Alcohol Poisoning

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person has consumed an inordinate amount of alcohol which raises the blood alcohol level to a dangerous or toxic level.  There is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that the liver can’t filter out all of the alcohol from the individual’s blood.

The liver is only able to process one unit of alcohol per hour.  Alcohol poisoning can interfere with a person’s gag reflex and cause the individual to choke on their own vomit if they lose consciousness.  There are about 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning in the United States every year.  It is estimated that about one person dies a week from alcohol poisoning in the United States.  Those at greater risk of suffering alcohol poisoning include chronic alcoholics and college students.

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

The nervous system can be slowed by consuming alcohol faster than your liver can process. Be sure to call 911 if you or someone is experiencing severe symptoms.

Symptoms include:

Vomiting, seizures, irregular breathing (ten seconds or longer between breaths), hypothermia (a drop in body temperature), and confusion.  In serious cases breathing may completely stop, the person could experience a heart attack, or experience brain damage if they experience severe dehydration.

Alcohol Poisoning Causes

The primary cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking. A binge is defined as when a man consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours or a woman drinks four or more alcoholic beverages in two hours. Binge drinking may last several hours or several days, making the liver’s job of processing (metabolizing) difficult, if not impossible.

You do not have to be unconscious to reach the point of poisoning; likewise, passing out doesn’t mean you have avoided the risk of alcohol poisoning. Whether you are conscious or not, the stomach continues to move alcohol into the bloodstream and liver. While food is digested over a period of hours, we absorb alcohol quickly, and alcohol takes longer to be metabolized by the liver.

An important factor in deciding how much you can drink safely is the knowledge of how much alcohol is considered one drink. It’s common to hear a beer-drinker downplay his (or her) consumption levels because “it’s only beer.” The reality is that a typical 12-ounce can or bottle of beer contains 5 percent alcohol, the same amount as one mixed drink made with 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

The following list shows the amount of alcohol in different popular drinks. Remember that the legal percentage of alcohol for each type is a range, so different brands or product names may contain more alcohol than is shown.

One drink equals:

  • 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 milliliters) of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof hard liquor (40 percent alcohol)

When mixed drinks are involved, it’s easy to receive an “overpour” from a bartender who adds more alcohol than the recipe calls for. That means you could imbibe a binge level of alcohol with fewer drinks.

While consumption plays a large role in alcohol poisoning, other factors can increase your risk:

  • Rate and amount of consumption
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Overall health
  • Recent food consumption
  • Combining alcohol with other drugs
  • Amount of alcohol in a drink
  • Individual tolerance level

How is Alcohol Poisoning Treated?

Treating alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning requires oxygen therapy and plenty of fluids generally injected directly through an IV to prevent dehydration. Patients are often given vitamins and glucose and in very serious cases it might also be necessary to filter metabolic waste from the bloodstream through hemodialysis.

Call 911

Call for an ambulance right away, keep the person sitting up, keep them from walking, try to keep them awake, give them water if they are able to consume it, and don’t give them coffee or it will make their dehydration worse. Monitor the person closely and make sure that they breath regularly and do not choke.

Alcohol Poisoning Prevention

Choosing not to drink products that contain ethyl alcohol is a safe choice. However, many adults can drink alcohol safely in moderation. A healthy adult woman can have one drink a day and a man aged 65 or younger, two drinks.

Additional suggestions for preventing alcohol poisoning:

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. While this offers no protection from poisoning if you are binge drinking, it may help slow absorption.
  • Drink slowly.
  • Explain the facts about alcohol to your children so they understand their own risks as they grow up.
  • Store alcoholic products safely away from children. This includes household cleaners, cosmetics, mouthwashes, and medications.
  • After an episode of binge drinking, get follow-up care. Chemical dependency professionals can help you or your children prevent future episodes of binge drinking.
  • Share what you have learned with others.
Alcohol Poisoning
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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
November 06, 2017