Alcohol Poisoning Symptom

What Level is Considered Alcohol Poisoning?

A person experiences alcohol intoxication when they consume a toxic amount of alcohol, usually during a short period. Their blood alcohol level is so high that it is considered poisonous.

alcohol poisoning

There isn’t a universally accepted standard for what is considered a ‘safe’ level of drinking. However, the metric used to determine the amount of alcohol in someone’s bloodstream is called blood alcohol concentration (BAC.) A person’s BAC level is affected by how many alcoholic beverages they consume and their weight, gender, drinking patterns, and genetics.

A person’s liver can process around one standard drink per hour containing 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. As BAC increases, so do the effects of alcohol and the risks of harm it brings. Even small increases in BAC can reduce motor coordination, make the drinker feel ill, and cloud their judgment. 

These risks can increase a person’s likelihood of injury, violence, and unprotected or unintended sex. When BAC reaches high levels, blackouts, loss of consciousness, and alcohol poisoning deaths can occur. 

BAC can continue to spike even when a person is unconscious or stops drinking. Alcohol in the stomach and intestine can continue to enter the bloodstream, circulating throughout the body.

It is dangerous to believe that an unconscious person will sleep off high BAC levels. Heavy alcohol use can affect brain signals that control automatic responses, including the gag reflex.

Someone who is experiencing an alcohol overdose and is passed out may choke on their own vomit. They may also die from asphyxiation, which is a lack of oxygen. Even if an individual survives asphyxiation, they may suffer from long-lasting brain damage.

What Happens To Your Body When You Have Alcohol Poisoning?

The liver can only process one serving of alcohol per hour. If a person consumes two servings within the hour, there will be an additional unit in their system. This takes extra time for the body to process.

Alcohol is usually consumed as a drink, so it enters the bloodstream, transferring to the brain through the digestion in the stomach and intestines. This process is a reasonably slow way to consume an intoxicating substance. This means that the number of alcoholic beverages someone has consumed may not all be in the bloodstream when they start to display vital signs of alcohol poisoning or intoxication.

Even if someone is already suffering from alcohol poisoning, they may continue to be affected by alcohol digestion.

Alcohol poisoning affects the body by:

  • Slowing brain functions
  • Irritating the stomach and causing vomiting 
  • Preventing gag reflex as muscles lose sensitivity and coordination
  • Affecting the nerves that control the heartbeat and breathing
  • Lowering blood sugar, leading to seizures 
  • Lowering body temperature, which can cause hypothermia 
  • Dehydrating the body, which can result in brain damage 

What Are The Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

The side effects and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Slowed reflexes and reaction time
  • Slurred speech
  • Memory troubles, blackouts, and loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Passing out
  • Heart rate changes
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Irregular breathing
  • Mental confusion
  • Blue-tinged or pale skin
  • Clammy skin
  • Low body temperature, or hypothermia
  • Stupor

Binge Drinking & Alcohol Poisoning 

Alcohol poisoning often results from binge drinking. Alcohol overdose can also occur if an individual intentionally or unintentionally consumes household products containing alcohol. However, this is much less common.

Binge drinking occurs when someone consumes too many alcoholic beverages too quickly. It is defined as a pattern of drinking that rises BAC to .08 percent or higher. Anyone who engages in binge drinking may be in danger of an alcohol overdose.

Drinking such significant alcohol quantities can inhibit the body’s ability to break down and clear alcohol from the bloodstream. This results in high increases in BAC, significantly affecting the brain and other bodily functions.

Binge drinking usually occurs after a woman consumes more than four alcoholic drinks, or a man has more than five alcoholic beverages within two hours.

Teenagers and young adults are particularly at risk for binge drinking and alcohol abuse. College students often engage in binge drinking and high-intensity drinking. 

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

When an individual experiences an alcohol overdose, they should be taken to the hospital. The person will be carefully monitored until the alcohol has left their system.

If medical treatment is required, it may involve placing a tube into the patient’s mouth and windpipe to open the airway. This helps to remove any blockages and assists with breathing.

Or, a medical professional fits an intravenous drip directly into the patient’s vein. This tops up water, blood sugar, and vitamin levels in the body.

A catheter may also be fitted to the patient’s bladder to drain urine directly into a bag. This ensures that the individual does not wet themselves. 

In most cases, people treated for alcohol poisoning have no symptoms one year after the incident. However, if they suffer from asphyxiation, they may experience long-lasting brain damage.

In some cases, individuals may require addiction treatment following alcohol poisoning if they suffer from substance abuse.

When Should You Go to the Hospital for Alcohol?

It’s essential to know the vital signals for alcohol overdose. If someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning symptoms listed above, it’s critical to call 911 for immediate medical help. Do not wait for the individual to display all the signs. Be aware that someone who has passed out from alcohol abuse can die.

If you suspect someone is suffering from an alcohol overdose, do not try to ‘wake them up.’ Cold showers, coffee, and attempting to get them to walk cannot reverse alcohol poisoning effects. Instead, these actions could worsen the condition.

When waiting for emergency help to arrive, prepare any known information for the responders. Useful information includes the type and amount of alcohol the individual drank, other drugs in their system, and any health issues you know about the person. For example, medicines they are currently taking, allergies to medicines, and any health conditions.

Do not leave the intoxicated person alone. They may risk injury from falling or may choke on their own vomit. Keep the individual on the ground in a sitting or upright position instead of in a chair. If they are vomiting, help them lean forward to avoid choking. 

If the individual is unconscious or lying down, roll them onto the left side with their ear towards the ground. This helps prevent choking.

Remember, no matter how severe the alcohol overdose seems, recovery is possible.

Resources

Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), March 2020, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-dangers-of-alcohol-overdose 

Blood alcohol level, MedlinePlus, July 2020, https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/blood-alcohol-level/ 

Alcohol Use and Your Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm 

Blood alcohol concentration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/pdf/bac-a.pdf 

Drinking levels defined, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking 

Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), 2014, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/treatment-alcohol-problems-finding-and-getting-help#1 

Alcohol poisoning, United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), April 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-poisoning/

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Updated on: October 20, 2020
Author
Ellie Swain
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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