Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that kills six people in the U.S. each day. Also known as ethanol poisoning or alcohol overdose, alcohol poisoning is caused by using too much alcohol. This most often occurs while binge drinking, but it can also happen with heavy drinking, when a child gets into alcohol or when medications or other substances increase the potency of alcohol.

Alcohol poisoning always requires emergency medical attention. If you or someone you know suspects alcohol poisoning, you should immediately call 911. Trying to treat alcohol poisoning yourself or waiting to see if symptoms improve could result in harm or even death. 

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Before you can help someone with alcohol poisoning, you need to know what to look for. Alcohol poisoning causes serious depression of the neurological system’s normal function. This can lead to several symptoms that can cause serious harm. Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting, which could be bloody
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Slurred speech
  • Bleeding from the mouth or rectum
  • Decreased consciousness
  • Unsteady walking
  • Inability to cough or clear airway
  • Decreased or absent breathing
  • Coma

If you or someone you are with may be experiencing signs of alcohol poisoning, immediately call 911 and seek emergency medical care. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal if not treated correctly, and the earlier you seek treatment, the better the chance of survival.

Immediate Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

If someone you know shows signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 and stay with them until help arrives. Give any first aid that you know or you believe is reasonable. While it may be difficult to tell whether someone is drunk enough to warrant help, it’s much better to overreact than underreact. 

Call Emergency Services

Be prepared to provide information like what kind of alcohol the person overdosing drank, when they started drinking, how much they drank and if any drugs were used.

Young people often worry they will get in trouble for underage drinking if they call for help. The good news is that many areas have “Good Samaritan” immunity laws. These laws protect callers and victims involved in an overdose situation from being arrested or prosecuted for anything related to helping themselves or others get the care they need.

Prioritize the Victim’s Safety

Don’t leave the person who may be experiencing alcohol poisoning alone, especially if they’re unconscious. Because alcohol poisoning affects the gag reflex, they may choke on their vomit and be unable to breathe. The only time you should ever leave someone overdosing alone is if it is absolutely necessary to get help.

First Aid Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

You should always give first aid treatment for alcohol poisoning if you can. Almost every state protects you from any legal consequences if you are trying to help in a reasonable way. By providing first aid, you can save someone’s life.

Positioning the Victim

When positioning the victim, the most important consideration is to ensure that if they vomit, the vomit will not obstruct their airway. If possible, they may sit up or even slightly forward. If they are confused or having problems staying awake, lay them on their side so that vomit won’t fall back into their airway.

Keep the Victim Awake

Never leave the person to “sleep it off.” Loss of consciousness can quickly turn into a coma or even death. , You should do what you can to keep the person awake until help arrives.

Prevent Choking

Most people with alcohol poisoning will vomit unpredictably. When coupled with decreased consciousness, this can be quite dangerous. You can prevent choking by positioning them on their side so the vomit will exit their mouth. If they choke, provide the Heimlich maneuver if you know how to position them so that the vomit can be easily expelled or removed by gravity.

Continue Monitoring While Awaiting Help

While you wait for help, it is important to continue monitoring the person, ensuring there are no changes in their condition. With alcohol poisoning, people’s conditions can change suddenly. Be prepared to respond if change does occur. You should also keep them warm with a blanket and ensure they are out of harm’s way while waiting for help.

Alcohol Poisoning Medical Treatment

Treatment for alcohol poisoning must be provided by trained healthcare professionals. Trying to treat it yourself is very dangerous and can lead to death.

Emergency Hospital Care

In a hospital setting, treatment of alcohol poisoning usually involves treating the symptoms it causes. Alcohol poisoning cannot be easily reversed, so the alcohol is typically allowed to be metabolized by the body. In severe cases, dialysis could be used to remove alcohol from the bloodstream. 

Hospitals will typically treat alcohol poisoning by initially focusing on protecting the airway and breathing. Someone who cannot breathe on their own will have a tube placed down their throat into their lungs and be attached to a machine that breathes for them. An IV will usually be placed to allow for hydration and medications. Other symptoms and problems will be treated as they occur until all the alcohol has been metabolized.

IV Drip and Medications

Medications can be given to reduce vomiting, and other treatments can control internal bleeding. There are no medications specifically used to treat alcohol poisoning. Rather, medications are given to help reduce the effects of symptoms that occur. Medications are mostly given through an IV, as taking medications by mouth can cause choking in someone experiencing alcohol poisoning. IV fluids are almost always given to help treat the dehydration that accompanies alcohol poisoning.

Monitoring and Ongoing Care

Once the alcohol has been metabolized, there is no need for ongoing medical care and monitoring unless complications occur. For example, someone who stopped breathing for several minutes could have brain damage that requires ongoing treatment. 

While there is no medical need for ongoing care if there aren’t any complications, alcohol poisoning does indicate a serious problem with alcohol. Someone who had alcohol poisoning should seek professional help and care for their alcohol use, as repeated alcohol poisoning is likely and will probably eventually result in a fatal episode.

Untreated Alcohol Poisoning

Untreated alcohol poisoning carries a high risk of death or long-term complications. If someone has alcohol poisoning and does not choose to get treatment or cannot get help, there is a chance that they will die. They may recover by themselves; however, this is a complete gamble. 

Coma and Death

Alcohol suppresses brain activity. In small doses, this makes you feel a bit buzzed. As the dose increases, what it affects increases. It begins to affect your coordination, vision and memory. Alcohol poisoning affects your brain so much that it’s unable to tell your body to breathe or regulate other vital functions. This is what leads to coma and, eventually, death.

Long-Term Effects

Long-term effects of alcohol poisoning are primarily due to complications that occurred during the episode. One of the most common long-term effects is brain damage caused by a prolonged period without oxygen. Injuries are also common, as someone is completely unable to protect themselves during a coma. The long-term effects are quite unpredictable, making it vital to get treatment as quickly as possible.

You should never treat alcohol poisoning by yourself — always call 911 as soon as alcohol poisoning is suspected.

How To Prevent Alcohol Poisoning

The only way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to avoid using too much alcohol. Avoiding binge drinking can especially help to reduce this risk. Other things that can help to reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Avoid mixing alcohol and medications or drugs.
  • Ask your doctor if your health will impact how your body metabolizes alcohol.
  • Use alcoholic beverages with lower amounts of alcohol and avoid high-proof drinks.

You can also reduce the risk of accidental alcohol poisoning by storing alcohol where children cannot access it. 

Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol addiction treatment is one of the most effective ways to overcome addiction and reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning. The treatment process typically involves two main steps. The first is medical detox, which allows your body to eliminate alcohol from its system. This can take 7–10 days and is when withdrawal symptoms will occur. 

The second step is rehab, which involves learning new coping strategies and building a foundation for long-term success in recovery. These treatment approaches can take place in an inpatient setting or on an outpatient basis, depending on the severity of the addiction. After treatment is complete, aftercare programs can help you maintain your recovery throughout the future.

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake provides a full continuum of care for those struggling with alcohol addiction. Located among the beautiful mountains of Colorado, our professional rehab facility provides an ideal environment where healing and lasting recovery from addiction can begin. Contact us today to learn more about how our addiction treatment programs can lead you toward a healthier, alcohol-free future.

More Questions on How To Treat Alcohol Poisoning

Can you just treat alcohol poisoning at home?

No, you should never treat alcohol poisoning at home. People typically try to treat alcohol poisoning at home because they fear others discovering they have been drinking. Treating alcohol poisoning at home increases the risk of death and is never advised. While others finding out about alcohol use could be embarrassing, this pales compared to the distress that death would cause. 

Can you die from alcohol poisoning?

Over 2,200 people die each year from alcohol poisoning. Additionally, many more people have lasting long-term effects from alcohol poisoning, such as brain damage or injuries that occur while overdosing on alcohol. Alcohol poisoning can also play a role in overdosing on other substances, such as opioids. 

How long does alcohol poisoning last?

Alcohol poisoning itself does not last long. The average person’s BAC is reduced by 0.015 per hour, meaning a dangerously high BAC will almost always be reduced to a safe level within 24 hours. The effects of alcohol poisoning, however, can last much longer. For example, brain damage caused by lack of oxygen can be permanent even though the BAC returns to normal and alcohol poisoning completely resolves.

How do you get alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs from ingesting too much alcohol. While overdrinking is the main cause of alcohol poisoning, other factors can increase risks. For example, someone less able to metabolize alcohol will have more alcohol buildup in their bloodstream, increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning. This could include individuals with liver problems, older adults and those taking certain medications.

Children who get into alcohol are at a higher risk of alcohol poisoning, as a smaller amount of alcohol can have a greater effect. Those who heavily use alcohol may have a greater tolerance for alcohol, reducing their risk. However, this increases their risk after a period of sobriety because using a similar amount of alcohol after tolerance is lost can increase the risk of alcohol poisoning.

What BAC causes alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can occur at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) as low as 0.25, just over three times the legal limit. However, the BAC needed for alcohol poisoning can vary from one person to another. For example, someone who drinks heavily may not experience alcohol poisoning at the same BAC as someone who drinks infrequently. Many other factors beyond BAC can also influence alcohol poisoning.

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Editor – Theresa Valenzky
Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology. She is passionate about providing genuine information to encourage and guide healing in all aspects of life. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.