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Updated on July 31, 2023
7 min read

How Does an Alcohol Overdose Affect Your Body?

What is an Alcohol Overdose?

Alcohol overdose is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition. It happens when you consume a large amount of alcohol quickly, leading to alcohol poisoning.

Ingesting more alcohol than the body can process causes:

  • Respiratory depression
  • Hypothermia
  • Blackout or loss of consciousness
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Coma
  • Death

Contact a medical professional if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of an overdose. Regardless of its mortality rate, an overdose is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention.


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How Much is Too Much Alcohol?

A standard drink is about 14 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol, which is roughly equivalent to:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (about 5% alcohol content)
  • 5 ounces of wine (about 12% alcohol content)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol content)

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is different for men and women. For men, it’s two or fewer drinks a day and one or less for women. 

Exceeding these limits can lead to intoxication and potentially an overdose. It can also increase the risks of experiencing:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Liver disease
  • Alcohol addiction
  • Cardiovascular problems

What Causes an Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol poisoning happens when you drink more alcohol than your body can process. As the small intestine absorbs alcohol, it passes it from the stomach and sends it to the bloodstream, which increases your blood alcohol content (BAC).

Your liver is a critical part of breaking down and metabolizing alcohol. However, it can only metabolize a limited amount at a time. The excess unmetabolized alcohol ends up distributed throughout the body. This causes side effects typically associated with alcohol poisoning.

A doctor can diagnose an alcohol overdose by checking a person’s BAC levels from blood tests, urine tests, or measuring their blood sugar.


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How Long Does It Take To Metabolize Alcohol

Alcohol metabolism can vary among individuals, but the body typically processes one drink per hour. This is roughly the equivalent of a shot of liquor, one beer, or one small glass of wine.

Drinking beyond a person’s alcohol tolerance limit will likely be too much for the body to break down, leading to intoxication and potentially an overdose. However, each person’s blood alcohol levels rise at different rates due to various factors such as:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Weight

Alcohol metabolism can also be affected by how much alcohol you drink and whether or not you eat before drinking. However, four factors remain consistent regarding your alcohol metabolism:

Alcohol Tolerance

Your alcohol tolerance level can affect the likelihood of alcohol poisoning. If you have a higher tolerance for alcohol, you’ll need to drink more of it to feel its effects.

Alcohol tolerance can change over time, but a higher level can lead to heavy and long-term alcohol abuse.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is the most common reason for alcohol intoxication. It's a pattern of consuming five or more alcoholic drinks for men or four drinks for women within two hours. This lack of control often leads to excessive drinking, especially when participating in risky activities like drinking games.

Binge drinking is dangerous because you might consume a fatal dose of alcohol before passing out. While unconscious, alcohol will continue to flow into your bloodstream, raising blood alcohol levels. These are linked to alcohol poisoning deaths.

Combining Alcohol with Drugs or Medications

Whether or not you’re taking medication is another critical factor influencing intoxication. Drinking alcohol while taking other substances is considered substance abuse. It can increase alcohol’s effects, such as extreme drowsiness, overdose, and other harmful consequences.

Alcohol can have adverse interactions with various over-the-counter and prescription medications. These include:

  • Sedatives like Benadryl
  • Opioids
  • Antihypertensive medication
  • Hypnotics
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Pain relievers
  • Skeletal muscle relaxants
  • Anti-diabetic medications
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications
  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics

Drinking alcohol with opioid pain relievers is particularly dangerous. These drugs suppress vital areas of the brain that are also adversely affected by alcohol.

It’s best to consult your healthcare provider if you can drink alcohol while on medication.

Accidental Ingestion

Alcohol poisoning can happen when children or adults accidentally ingest household products that contain alcohol.

It's important to label products accordingly and keep all types of alcoholic beverages out of reach of children. For older children and young adults, alcohol must be locked away so it cannot be accessed easily.


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Signs of an Alcohol Overdose

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning can help people seek timely help. These signs include:

  • Noticeable changes in mental state
  • Slurred speech
  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Significantly slowed heart rate
  • Clammy or pale skin
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Poor judgment
  • Blue-tinted or altered skin tone
  • Slowed responses
  • Extremely low body temperature

It's not necessary to have all the symptoms listed above to experience an alcohol overdose. If you experience more than one of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

How Does an Alcohol Overdose Affect the Body

In addition to the symptoms of an alcohol overdose, serious complications can arise from drinking too much alcohol.

Some of these risks include:

  • Slow breathing and heart rate
  • Loss of the gag reflex, which can result in a person choking on their vomit after passing out
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Low body temperature or hypothermia
  • Heart attack
  • Seizures as a result of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)

Prolonged exposure to high levels of alcohol can also lead to permanent brain damage, which affects vital life functions. Failure to control automatic responses and basic life support functions can lead to severe illnesses and life-threatening consequences.

How Can I Prevent an Alcohol Overdose

Knowing the health risks associated with excessive drinking can help prevent alcohol overdose. The best way to avoid its harmful effects is by abstaining from alcohol altogether. However, if you want to drink alcohol without the risk of overdosing, here are a few tips you can follow:

Avoid Drinking More Than One Drink per Hour

You can prevent an overdose by allowing your body to process the alcohol before drinking more of it. Remember, it’s not about how much you drink but how fast you drink it.

Never Drink Without Food in Your Stomach

You absorb alcohol faster when you drink on an empty stomach. When you’re full, the stomach sphincter muscle closes to digest food to slow the absorption of alcohol. Although having food in your stomach cannot prevent an alcohol overdose, it will help mitigate some of the effects of mild to moderate drinking.

Keep Alcohol Stored in a Secure Place

It's essential to secure products that contain alcohol to avoid accidental overdoses. Ensure all alcohol-containing products are kept out of the reach of children.

These include:

  • Mouth wash
  • Cleaning products that contain isopropyl alcohol
  • Methanol or ethylene glycol found in antifreeze, paints, and solvents 
  • Certain medications like Benadryl and Tylenol

Consuming these products can also indicate signs of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Many people suffering from this disorder may drink rubbing alcohol and other household products to get drunk.

Treatment Options/Resources for an Alcohol Overdose

If you or a loved one are experiencing problems related to alcohol use or misuse, seek help from a medical practitioner or healthcare professional. Alcohol poisoning treatment is typically done in a hospital emergency room.

From there, you’ll be physically examined and monitored for symptoms. The attending physician will provide the following treatments as necessary:

  • Intravenous fluids (IV) and medications
  • Supplemental oxygen through a nasal tube or mask
  • Supplemental nutrients to prevent additional complications, such as brain damage
  • Specific medications to stop seizures, if needed
  • Using a urinary catheter until you regain control of bodily functions

Treatment may vary depending on whether or not you drank alcohol while taking prescription medication. Combining the effects of alcohol and other substances can lead to alcohol toxicity, which requires different medical solutions.


An alcohol overdose is a condition where your body is processing excessive alcohol. It’s harmful and potentially life-threatening when you drink too much alcohol too quickly.

Although alcohol in moderation is safe to consume, various factors can increase the likelihood of an overdose. This includes factors such as age, gender, weight, etc.

Alcohol poisoning symptoms can lead to slow breathing, unresponsiveness, permanent brain damage, or death. Contact emergency medical help if you notice two or more symptoms of an overdose.

Updated on July 31, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Hingson, R., et al. "Drinking beyond the binge threshold: Predictors, consequences, and changes in the U.S." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2017.

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose." NIAAA.

  3. National Health Service. "Alcohol Poisoning." NHS, 2023.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Alcohol Use and Your Health." CDC, 2022.

  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much." NIAAA, 2023.

  6. LaHood, A., and Stephanie Kok, "Ethanol Toxicity." Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, 2023.

  7. Willmore, J, et al. "The burden of alcohol-related morbidity and mortality in Ottawa, Canada." PloS One, 2017.

  8. Huang, Zz, and Ake Sjöholm, “Ethanol Acutely Stimulates Islet Blood Flow, Amplifies Insulin Secretion, and Induces Hypoglycemia via Nitric Oxide and Vagally Mediated Mechanisms.” Endocrinology, 2007.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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