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Alcohol Poisoning | Causes, Symptoms, Complications, & Treatment

Published on August 2, 2021
Alcohol Poisoning | Causes, Symptoms, Complications, & Treatment

Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening condition that may require immediate medical attention. It can happen when you drink too much alcohol in a short period of time, or if you ingest household products containing alcohol.

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

The most common cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is drinking any amount of alcohol that raises your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or higher. You can reach this blood alcohol level by having five drinks (if you’re a man) or four drinks (if you’re a woman) within two hours.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a single drink as a:

  • 12 oz bottle of beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 oz glass of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 oz glass of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz shot of hard liquor (40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof)

The body absorbs alcohol quickly—much faster than food—but the liver breaks it down slowly. The more you drink in a small time frame, the higher your risk for alcohol poisoning.

Other Risk Factors 

Other risk factors can increase your chance of getting alcohol poisoning, such as:

  • drinking beverages that contain a high percentage of alcohol
  • mixing alcoholic drinks and other drugs
  • being smaller or underweight
  • being unhealthy or having a weak immune system
  • having an empty stomach
  • not drinking water
  • having a low tolerance for alcohol

You can also get alcohol poisoning from drinking or inhaling products containing isopropyl alcohol, methanol, or ethylene glycol. These include rubbing alcohol, lotions, some cleaning products, antifreeze, and paint.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Poisoning

Drinking too much alcohol can be deadly. To avoid symptoms like coma or confusion, be sure to spot the signs of alcohol poisoning early:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • irregular breathing
  • dangerously slow breathing
  • bluish or pale skin (resulting from lack of oxygen)
  • low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • blackout (memory loss)
  • passing out (loss of consciousness)

Alcohol Poisoning Complications

If left untreated, alcohol poisoning can rapidly get worse. The following complications may arise:

  • Choking: If you lose consciousness, you could choke on your own vomit.
  • Suffocation: Inhaling vomit could make you stop breathing and suffocate.
  • Severe dehydration: Vomiting dehydrates you, which can drastically lower your blood pressure and raise your heart rate.
  • Irregular heart rate: Your heart may beat irregularly or stop beating.
  • Hypothermia: Severely low body temperature can cause a heart attack.
  • Seizures: Too much alcohol drops your blood sugar levels dangerously low (hypoglycemia), which can cause seizures.
  • Brain damage: Heavy alcohol use can cause permanent brain damage.

Any of these complications can lead to death. 

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows down vital functions like breathing and heart rate. Heavy alcohol consumption can make you stop breathing altogether. Severe respiratory depression is a common result of alcohol overdose or poisoning.

Treatment For Alcohol Poisoning

If someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, monitor them constantly to ensure they keep breathing and don’t choke. Food and water may help if they are conscious, but they might be unable to eat or drink due to vomiting. 

Medical Help

If medical attention is necessary, professionals can administer fluids intravenously (through an IV) to keep you hydrated. They may also use oxygen therapy, vitamins, and glucose to stabilize you. 

If you’ve ingested isopropyl alcohol or methanol, you may receive hemodialysis, which is a process of filtering your blood to get rid of toxins.

Home Remedies To Avoid

You might have heard some home remedies for drinking too much alcohol, but experts warn that these don’t work:

  • drinking coffee or caffeine—ineffective at reversing alcohol poisoning
  • taking a cold shower—shocks your body and could make you pass out
  • “sleeping it off”—you could go unconscious while sleeping
  • going for a walk—doesn’t help your body metabolize alcohol faster

Alcohol Poisoning Prevention

The best way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to drink in moderation or not at all. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink in a day for women or two drinks in a day for men. 

More than this is considered heavy drinking and raises the risk of alcohol poisoning, even if you don’t binge drink.

When you do drink alcohol, make sure you’re drinking water and eating, too. 

For underage adolescents or children, let them know the risks of drinking alcohol, especially binge drinking. Keep harmful chemicals out of reach of children who may ingest them.

If you or a loved one are struggling, alcohol addiction treatment can teach you tools to resist substance use and reclaim your physical and mental health. To learn more, please connect with us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Binge Drinking
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol
Mayo Clinic - Alcohol poisoning

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