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Alcohol Intoxication

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What is Alcohol Intoxication?

Alcohol intoxication describes the physical and mental effects of drinking too much alcohol. These include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Reduced coordination
  • Impaired judgment
  • Blurred vision
  • Drowsiness

The level of intoxication depends on how much alcohol has been consumed.

Alcohol Intoxication Definition

Also known as drunkenness, alcohol intoxication is the negative behavior and physical effects caused by drinking alcohol.

These effects typically start to occur when alcohol reaches a certain percentage of a person's bloodstream, known as their blood alcohol content (BAC).

Most states legally define alcohol intoxication as having a BAC of 0.08% or above.8

What is Acute Alcohol Intoxication? 

Acute alcohol intoxication is also known as alcohol poisoning. This is a more severe form of intoxication.

Effects can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of control of bodily functions
  • Abdominal pain
  • Reduced body temperature
  • Impaired breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

Acute intoxication is life-threatening.

In extreme cases, serious breathing issues can occur.8 Other dangers include a higher risk for injury from fights or accidents. 

A major cause of acute alcohol intoxication is binge drinking. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 25.8% of Americans have engaged in binge drinking in the past.2  

Binge drinking is five or more standard drinks in two hours for men. For women, it's four or more. An example of a standard drink is 12 fluid ounces of regular beer or 8-9 fluid ounces of malt liquor.

What Causes Alcohol Intoxication?

When people drink alcohol, it passes through the stomach and into the small intestine. From there, it passes into the bloodstream. This raises their blood alcohol content. 

Blood alcohol content is the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. In every U.S. state (besides Utah— which is .05%), the legal definition of alcohol intoxication is a BAC of 0.08% or above.8  

The amount of alcohol consumed is not the only factor in determining BAC.

Other factors include:

  • Weight
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Whether you have eaten recently (and how much)
  • Size and type of drink
  • Altitude
  • Any medications you may be taking
  • Whether you've gotten good sleep recently
  • How hydrated you are prior to drinking
  • What your mood is
  • Stress levels

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Intoxication?

Signs of alcohol intoxication include:

  • Slurred speech 
  • Reduced coordination or balance
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Low body temperature
  • Impaired memory or judgment
  • Slow or irregular breathing

If you are concerned about someone with these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention.

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The 7 Stages of Alcohol Intoxication 

These include:

1. Sobriety, or subclinical intoxication (0.01 - 0.05 BAC)

A person may or may not appear intoxicated at this stage.

2. Euphoria (0.01 - 0.12% BAC)

The person is more confident, friendly, impulsive, and has a shorter attention span. This person may or may not be legally intoxicated at this point.

3. Excitement (0.09 - 0.25% BAC)

An intoxicated person at this stage may show slowed reaction times, reduced memory, blurred vision, and a lack of coordination. They will almost certainly appear intoxicated.

4. Confusion (0.18 - 0.30% BAC)

A person here is highly intoxicated.

Symptoms include:

  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Speaking difficulties
  • Increased aggression
  • Blurry vision

Significant impairments to balance and reflexes may also occur.

5. Stupor (0.25 - 0.49% BAC)

A person at this stage can barely move or stand, is prone to vomiting, and may slip in and out of consciousness. The chance of an alcohol overdose is very high here, and medical help should be sought immediately.

Death can occur over a BAC of .40%. 

6. Coma (0.35 - 0.50% BAC)

This is close to a fatal dose. The intoxicated person has lost consciousness and is struggling to breathe properly. Their heart rate has likely slowed as well, and their body temperature is dropping dangerously low.

This is a medical emergency.

7. Death (+.50% BAC)

When a person drinks this much, the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) shuts down. The ANS is responsible for breathing, heartbeat, circulation, digestion, and other vital functions. 

When to See a Doctor

If you believe someone is significantly intoxicated, the first thing to do is to remove any additional alcohol from their immediate surroundings so they can't continue to drink.

If you believe someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, seek immediate medical attention.

While you wait, make sure the intoxicated person remains upright and awake. They should also be given water if possible and kept warm. 

How is Alcohol Intoxication Diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose intoxication by checking the patient’s blood alcohol content levels. Low blood sugar is another sign of possible alcohol poisoning.

BAC and blood sugar levels can both be checked with a simple blood or urine test.

How is Alcohol Intoxication Treated? 

Emergency medical attention for alcohol poisoning may involve the following:

  • Physical exam
  • Oxygen therapy (a breathing tube is inserted to supplement oxygen intake)
  • Insertion of an intravenous drip
  • Use of a catheter until the patient regains control of bodily functions
  • Airway protection and mechanical ventilation, if the person has lost their gag reflex (a breathing tube is inserted into the trachea to prevent vomitus from entering the lungs and support breathing)

Possible Complications of Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol poisoning can lead to a variety of serious complications, including:

  • Gastritis (inflammation of stomach lining)
  • Diabetes complications
  • Respiratory failure from inadequate breathing and ventilation, or from inhaling vomitus
  • Hypothermia (dangerously low body temperature)
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Brain damage 
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What is the Outlook for Alcohol Intoxication?

Patients should be carefully monitored after being treated and stabilized as their vital functions return to normal. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are possible.

Some signs to watch for include decreased mood and appetite, memory problems, headache, and fatigue. Usually, full recovery takes a couple of days.

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When is Alcohol Intoxication a Sign of Alcoholism?

Medical care professionals treating patients for alcohol poisoning should check for possible Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

People at risk of AUD: 

  • Are unable to quit drinking
  • Continue to drink despite it causing social or work problems
  • Crave alcohol and spend a lot of time acquiring and using it
  • Experience anxiety or depression and physical symptoms when alcohol wears off 

Diagnosis is based on interviews and questionnaires, not on lab tests. If this occurs, addiction treatment is required. 

Treatment Options/Resources for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction 

Alcohol addiction can have deadly consequences, including:

  • Cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Heart disease
  • Injury from accidental or intentional violence, motor vehicle crashes, fights, falling, etc.

Peer-reviewed studies correlate drinking alcohol early in life to substance abuse involving other drugs, including marijuana and cocaine.11 

Over 95,000 Americans die each year from excessive alcohol consumption.

Heavy alcohol use is a leading cause of death across all ages, accounting for 3.8% of all deaths worldwide.5 

There are many treatment options available for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and addiction, including:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center.

These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care. You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to professional medical monitoring. 

The first step of an inpatient program is detoxification. Then behavioral therapy and other services are introduced. These programs typically last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer. After this, if the person still needs care, they will require a different type of program such as a longer term residential program.

Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) provide similar services to inpatient programs. Services include medical care, behavioral therapy, and support groups, along with other customized therapies. 

However, in a PHP program, you return home to sleep. Some services provide food and transportation, but services vary by program.

PHPs accept new patients as well as people who have completed an inpatient program of 1 to 2 weeks but still need focused recovery care.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient or partial hospitalization programs.

These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.

They are best for people who have a high motivation to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities at home, work, or school. Outpatient programs are often part of aftercare programs once you complete an inpatient or PHP program. For outpatient treatment to be effective, the person needs to have a stable home situation that is supportive of recovery.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Sometimes medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment.

Some medicines can help manage withdrawal symptoms.

FDA-approved medications for MAT alcohol abuse include:

When combined with other evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Self-Management And Recovery Training (SMART) are open to anyone with a substance use disorder.

They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. Support groups can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

Updated on April 5, 2022
11 sources cited
  1. 1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Deaths from Excessive Alcohol Use in the U.S.” https://www.cdc.gov/, 2021.
  2. 2) Driving Laws Published by NOLO. “Blood Alcohol Level Chart: Are You Too Drunk to Legally Drive?
  3. 3) http://www2.courtinfo.ca.gov/. “Stages of Intoxication.” http://www2.courtinfo.ca.gov/.
  4. 4) 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.
  5. 5) Keyes, Katherine M., et al. “Alcohol consumption predicts incidence of depressive episodes across 10 years among older adults in 19 countries.” International Review of Neurobiology, vol. 148, 2019, pp. 1-38.
  6. 6) National Health Service. “Alcohol poisoning.” https://www.nhs.uk/,.
  7. 7) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/.
  8. 8) Vonghia, Luisa, et al. “Acute alcohol intoxication.” European Journal of Internal Medicine, vol. 19, 2008, pp. 561-567. https://www.ejinme.com/.
  9. 9) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/.
  10. 10) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Deaths From Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States.” https://www.cdc.gov/.
  11. 11) Kandel, Denise and Yamaguchi, Kazuo. “From Beer to Crack: Developmental Patterns of Drug Involvement.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 83, no. 6, 1993, pp. 851-855.

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