Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
What is alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning can be deadly. It occurs when a person drinks more alcohol in a short period of time than the liver can process. Identifying alcohol as a toxin, the liver attempts to filter it from the bloodstream. However, the liver can only effectively process about one standard serving of alcohol an hour for the average adult. If more than that is consumed, the liver can’t keep up.
One serving of alcohol is defined as 1.5 ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 8 ounces of beer. But variables such as weight, age, gender, medications, and medical conditions may affect the liver’s ability to metabolize the alcohol. When unmetabolized alcohol is released into the body and damage can occur to major organs like the liver, kidneys, and brain.
Alcohol poisoning affects the areas of the brain that control life-sustaining functions like breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex. When these functions slow to dangerous levels, the danger of choking, coma, brain damage, and death, increases.
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.” Binge drinking by college students, chronic alcoholism, and adverse medication interactions make up a large portion of those deaths.
What is binge drinking?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as, “a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.”
Binge drinking occurs in all age groups but may be most common in those 18-34 years old. The CDC reports binge drinking to be the most “deadly pattern” of alcohol abuse in this country. Binge drinking carries a high risk of alcohol poisoning.
What are the symptoms of alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. If alcohol poisoning is suspected, immediate help should be requested, and the person should not be left alone while awaiting emergency response.
Blood alcohol levels continue to rise, even after a person has stopped drinking or gone to sleep. A person who appears to be sleeping or unconscious could vomit and choke to death, so they should never be left to “sleep it off.”
Because of the risk of choking, never induce vomiting. Signs of alcohol poisoning manifest both mentally and physically and may include:
- Loss of coordination
- Confused, disoriented
- Irregular or slow breathing
- Pale, clammy skin, may have a blue hue
- Vomiting and gagging
- Choking, difficulty breathing
- Very cold body temperature, shivering
- Unconscious and unresponsive or awake but unresponsive
It is advisable to try to keep a person awake, sitting up, and conscious while awaiting help. If that’s not possible, and they’re lying down, their head should be turned to the side to help prevent choking on vomit.
What NOT to do when alcohol poisoning is suspected
Despite common myths to the contrary, do not attempt to overcome alcohol poisoning by “sleeping it off”, taking a cold shower, drinking coffee, or eating greasy food. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and must be treated as such.
- “Sleeping it off” – choking to death can occur, or a person could slip into a coma
- Taking a cold shower – can shock the body into unconsciousness
- Drinking coffee – does not lessen the effect of alcohol
- Eating greasy food – may slow absorption but alcohol will eventually be processed
Also, a person should not attempt to “walk it off.” This does not help the body to rid itself of alcohol, and, because of impaired coordination, increases the risk of a fall or other serious accident.
Why is alcohol poisoning so dangerous?
As blood alcohol levels rise in the body, the likelihood of serious consequences also increases. Blackouts, loss of consciousness, heart attack, coma, and death can occur. The risk of permanent organ damage, including heart and brain damage, are all possible complications of alcohol poisoning. As indicated by the annual death rate from alcohol poisoning, death is an all too common outcome.
Vomiting, a common response to high levels of alcohol, can trigger deadly results. Excessive vomiting can cause severe dehydration, which may result in dangerously low blood pressure, and rapid heart rate. This could cause the heart to stop. Extreme dehydration can also cause permanent brain damage. Toxic levels of alcohol depress both breathing and the gag reflex, increasing the risk of choking on vomit and dying by suffocation.
Alcohol poisoning often results in irregular or slow breathing. The breathing function controlled by the brain is depressed, failing to trigger the lungs to breathe normally. As the lungs bring in less oxygen, the breathing becomes slower or more irregular. Less than 8 breaths a minute is considered dangerously slow breathing. Irregular breathing means there is a lapse of more than 10 seconds between each breath. In either case, the breathing might stop completely.
Insufficient oxygen in the body causes the skin to become very pale, clammy, and sometimes tinged with a blue tone. When these skin changes occur, it is a clear signal the heart and lungs are starting to shut down because the body is not getting enough blood flow or oxygen.
Excessive amounts of alcohol can cause hypoglycemia, a condition where the body’s blood sugar (glucose) has dropped to dangerously low levels. This can result in confusion, fainting, difficulty with vision, and seizures. Seizures can cause permanent brain damage.
How is alcohol poisoning treated?
It’s vital that individuals suffering from alcohol poisoning be treated in a hospital. Medical personnel will assess the patient’s condition and provide the appropriate treatment. After condition and vital signs are assessed, patients will often receive intravenous (IV) fluids to treat dehydration, and to improve electrolyte balances. If blood sugar levels are dangerously low, patients may also receive IV glucose. This not only raises blood sugar levels but also warms the body. If the body temperature drops too low, cardiac arrest can occur.
If the patient is having difficulty breathing, they are given assistance via oxygen therapy or by the insertion of a breathing tube, allowing a machine to temporarily breathe for them.
Throughout treatment, vital signs are carefully monitored, and patients are closely watched in case of vomiting, choking, or slipping into a coma. Medications to treat nausea and vomiting may be administered, as well as vitamins to combat nutritional deficiencies and to assist nerve, muscle, and heart function.
A patient may need to have his or her stomach pumped to remove residual unprocessed alcohol. In extreme cases, hemodialysis (kidney dialysis) may be required. This mechanically filters toxins from the body. Hemodialysis is often indicated in cases where adults or children have accidentally ingested methanol or isopropyl alcohol.
Sometimes alcohol poisoning causes incontinence. In these cases, a catheter may be inserted into the bladder to drain urine directly into a catheter bag.
Brain damage from alcohol poisoning is a real danger. Physicians may order a CT scan to determine if this is the case.
I’ve experienced alcohol poisoning – do I need a recovery program?
Alcohol poisoning is a frightening occurrence, and for good reason. With 2,200 deaths a year in the United States alone, you need to take a hard look at your life and decide how to prevent it from ever happening again. Because next time could be fatal.
- If you were treated in a hospital or other treatment facility, you were likely evaluated upon release. Did your doctor recommend any additional medical, behavioral, or other treatment?
- Think about the ways alcohol use has negatively affected your life. Has it caused problems with personal relationships, school, work, health, or other areas of your life?
- Have an honest discussion with family and friends about their perception of your alcohol use and how it’s affected them.
- Have you tried to abstain or control the amount you drink, but been unsuccessful?
- Do you tend to feel bad, physically and mentally, the day after drinking heavily or drinking more than planned?
- In addition to alcohol poisoning, has your drinking caused other negative consequences in your life?
- Have you engaged in risky behavior while under the influence, like driving, swimming, having unsafe sex, etc.?
If some or all of these apply to you, it is time to seek help.
What types of recovery programs are best for alcohol abuse or addiction?
To find the best treatment for your situation, it’s best to start by meeting with your own doctor. He or she knows your medical history, including any physical or mental conditions that need to be considered in your treatment protocol. Your doctor can recommend a treatment approach or put you in touch with an alcohol treatment specialist for guidance.
It may be best for you to enroll in a residential treatment program, where you will stay for 30 to 90 days. These programs offer comprehensive therapeutic services. If you haven’t been diagnosed with severe or long-term alcohol abuse, an outpatient treatment program may be a good fit for you. These programs generally offer group or individual counseling, and other services.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a well known 12-step program run by recovering alcoholics who offer experience and support to other members. The 12-step approach is often used in both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs and is also very beneficial as a stand-alone program.