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Alcohol Overdose

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What is an Alcohol Overdose?

Alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning (intoxication), is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It occurs from drinking large amounts of alcohol over a short period.

Ingesting more alcohol than the body is able to process can cause: 

  • Breathing problems
  • Reduced body temperature
  • Black out or unconciousness
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Coma
  • Death

Regardless of severity, a person experiencing an alcohol overdose requires immediate medical attention.

What Causes an Alcohol Overdose? 

An alcohol overdose is when more alcohol is consumed than the body can process.

The small intestine absorbs alcohol as it passes from the stomach, sending it into the bloodstream as quickly as it's absorbed.

This rapidly increases the blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which the body must process. BAC determines the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream.

The liver is critical for breaking down alcohol.

However, it's only capable of metabolizing a limited amount at a time. What is unable to be broken down is sent back through the rest of the body.

While everybody metabolizes alcohol at different rates, the typical benchmark for a safe amount of alcohol is around one-third of an ounce per hour. This is roughly equivalent to a shot of liquor, one beer, or one small glass of wine.

Any more than this will likely be too much for the body to break down, leading to intoxication and, eventually, overdose.

Several factors can lead to an overdose, such as age, alcohol tolerance levels, gender, and even the amount of food eaten.

But three particular factors are the most important:

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is the most common reason for alcohol intoxication. It's a pattern of heavy drinking that involves consuming five or more alcoholic drinks for males or four drinks for females within two hours. 

Binge drinking is dangerous because it's possible to consume a fatal dose of alcohol before losing consciousness.

Alcohol continues to be released from the stomach into the bloodstream after drinking has stopped, raising the BAC even while unconscious.

Alcohol binges can happen over just a few hours or go on for several days, both of which can be deadly.

The length of time that binge drinking covers is less important than how much alcohol is consumed over any given period.

Mixing Alcohol with Other Drugs or Medications

Whether a person is taking medication is another important factor influencing intoxication. Drinking while taking over-the-counter medications like Benadryl can cause extreme drowsiness. 

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

Taking these substances together intensifies each of their effects and could even cause an overdose with a moderate amount of alcohol.

Accidental Ingestion

An alcohol overdose is also possible 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 from children. For older children and young adults, it's vital that alcohol is locked away in a place where it cannot be accessed.

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Signs of an Alcohol Overdose (Intoxication) 

Critical signs of alcohol poisoning (intoxication) include:

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

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

How Does an Alcohol Overdose Affect the Body? 

In addition to the symptoms that accompany an alcohol overdose, serious complications can arise from drinking more than the liver can process.

Some of these risks and complications include:

  • Slowed breathing and heart rate
  • Loss of the gag reflex, which can result in a person choking on their own vomit after passing out
  • Hypothermia (a significant decrease in body temperature). This can lead to a heart attack.
  • Seizures, as a result of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)
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How is an Alcohol Overdose Diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose an alcohol overdose by checking the patient’s BAC levels.

Another way is through measuring blo0d sugar. Studies show that alcohol can create an exaggerated insulin response, lowering blood sugar.

Both BAC and blood sugar levels can be checked with either a blood or urine test.

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Treatment Options/Resources for an Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol poisoning (intoxication) is usually treated in a hospital emergency room. There, the patient will be physically examined and their symptoms monitored.

The attending physician will provide the following treatments if the patient’s condition worsens:

  • Intravenous fluids (IV) or medications
  • Supplemental oxygen through nasal tube or mask
  • Supplemental nutrients to prevent additional complications, such as brain damage
  • Specific medications to stop seizures, if needed
  • Use of catheter until patient regains control of bodily functions

How Can I Prevent an Alcohol Overdose?

The best way to prevent an alcohol overdose is by abstaining from alcohol altogether.

If you would like to drink alcoholic beverages without overdosing, enjoy them slowly and limit intake to one or two drinks per day. Also, avoid consuming more than one drink per hour at any time. 

Never drink without food in your system. You absorb alcohol faster when you drink on an empty stomach. The stomach sphincter muscle closes to digest food, which slows 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.

It's also important to safely store products that contain alcohol to avoid accidental overdose.

Ensure all alcohol-containing products, most notably mouthwashes and certain medications, are kept out of the reach of children.

Consumption of these products can also be a sign of drug dependence or alcohol addiction. Many of those suffering from addiction drink rubbing alcohol and other household products to become intoxicated.

If you or a loved one are experiencing problems related to alcohol use or misuse, seek help from a medical practitioner or healthcare professional.

Updated on March 11, 2022
8 sources cited
  1. Hingson, R.W, et al. "Drinking beyond the binge threshold: Predictors, consequences, and changes in the U.S." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 52:717–727, 2017. PMID: 28526355.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose." NIAAA.
  3. National Health Service. "Alcohol Poisoning." NHS. 
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Alcohol Use and Your Health." CDC.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much." NIAAA.
  6. LaHood AJ, Kok SJ. "Ethanol Toxicity. [Updated 2020 Apr 17]." In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan.
  7. Willmore, J., Marko, et al. . "The burden of alcohol-related morbidity and mortality in Ottawa, Canada." PloS one, 12, e0185457.
  8. Huang, Zhen, and Åke Sjöholm. “Ethanol Acutely Stimulates Islet Blood Flow, Amplifies Insulin Secretion, and Induces Hypoglycemia via Nitric Oxide and Vagally Mediated Mechanisms.” Endocrinology, vol. 149, no. 1, 2008, pp. 232-236.

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