The patient can become extremely confused, unresponsive, disoriented, have shallow breathing, and can even pass out or go into a coma.
Alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening and usually requires urgent medical treatment.
Binge drinking is a common cause of alcohol poisoning. However, it can also occur if somebody intentionally or unintentionally drinks alcohol-containing household products (much less common).
Fast facts on alcohol poisoning
- Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition.
- Even when someone stops drinking, there is risk of alcohol poisoning for some time afterward.
- Symptoms include confusion, abnormal breathing, and vomiting.
- In severe cases, alcohol poisoning is life-threatening.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning
Alcohol poisoning can cause drinkers to lose consciousness when their blood alcohol concentration reaches a certain level.
Even when someone stops drinking, blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise for 30-40 minutes, resulting in worsening symptoms.
The following signs and symptoms may indicate a progression from being drunk to alcohol poisoning:
- hypothermia (the person's body temperature drops)
- pale skin, sometimes it may take on a bluish tinge
- the individual is unresponsive but conscious (stupor)
- the individual passes out
- abnormal breathing - sometimes up to 10 seconds between breaths
- very slow breathing
- vomiting - potential to choke on vomit when confused
In serious cases:
- breathing might stop completely
- a heart attack may occur
- there is a risk of choking on their own vomit - vomit might be inhaled into the lungs causing a serious infection
- if the individual loses too much fluid (severe dehydration), there is a risk of brain damage
- if blood glucose levels drop (hypoglycemia), they might develop seizures
If the alcohol poisoning is extreme, the patient can go into a coma and potentially die.
This article focuses on the medical aspects of alcohol poisoning, rather than other environmental dangers of alcohol abuse such as getting into fights, losing possessions, or having problems with the law.
Treatment for alcohol poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is a significant medical condition. It requires immediate treatment if suspected.
If a person is thought to have alcohol poisoning, an ambulance should be called. Before the ambulance arrives, the following assistance should be given:
- try to keep the individual awake
- try to keep them in a sitting position, not lying down - if they do lie down, turn their head to the side
- if they can take it, give them water
- if the person is unconscious, put them in the recovery position and check they are breathing
- do not give them coffee; caffeine will worsen the dehydration
- do not lie them on their back
- do not give them any more alcohol to drink
- do not make them walk
In the hospital, depending on the patient's BAC level and severity of signs and symptoms, staff may just monitor them until their alcohol levels gradually drop. However, depending on the severity of symptoms, other treatments may include:
- a tube inserted into their windpipe to help with breathing
- an intravenous drip to manage hydration, blood glucose, and vitamin levels
- a urinary catheter if they become incontinent
- in some cases, the patient's stomach may be pumped - fluids are flushed through a tube that goes down their mouth or nose
If the patient - who may sometimes be a child - has unintentionally drunk methanol or isopropyl alcohol and has alcohol poisoning they may need dialysis to speed up the removal of toxins from their system.
What causes alcohol poisoning?
College drinkers are statistically the most at risk of alcohol poisoning.
When somebody consumes an alcoholic drink, their liver has to filter out the alcohol, a toxin, from their blood.
We absorb alcohol much more quickly than food - alcohol gets to our bloodstream much faster.
However, the liver can only process a limited amount of alcohol; approximately one standard drink of alcohol every hour.
If a person drinks two in 1 hour, there will be an extra drink's worth of alcohol in the bloodstream. If during the next hour, the person consumes another two drinks, they will have two standard drink's worth of alcohol floating around in their bloodstream 2 hours after the drinking session.
The faster someone drinks, the higher the BAC becomes. Rapid drinking can bring BAC so high that mental and physical functions are negatively affected. If BAC is high enough, physical functions such as breathing and the gag reflex (that prevents people from choking) can be affected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are "2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths in the United States each year - an average of six alcohol poisoning deaths every day."
Those at highest risk of suffering from alcohol poisoning are college students, chronic alcoholics, and those taking medications that clash with alcohol.