Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention
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Last Updated - 09/12/2023View our editorial policy
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 or when a child gets into alcohol. Alcohol poisoning can also occur when medications or other substances increase the potency of alcohol.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is the term used to describe an alcohol overdose. This condition occurs when too much alcohol is used in too short a time, which creates symptoms that can be life-threatening or cause permanent harm.
Alcohol suppresses your neurological function and creates mild symptoms known to accompany alcohol use, such as slurred speech, decreased coordination and decreased inhibitions. This suppressing effect can cause more serious symptoms when higher amounts of alcohol are used. Ultimately, alcohol can inhibit neurological function to such an extent that it causes seizures, coma and stopped breathing.
What BAC Is 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 to occur 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. There are also many other factors beyond BAC that can influence alcohol poisoning.
Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
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 that 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
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 will be.
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 your risks. For example, someone who is 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 use alcohol heavily 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.
How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?
Alcohol poisoning itself does not last long. Your BAC is reduced by 0.015 per hour, meaning that 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.
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.
What To Do for Alcohol Poisoning
If someone you know is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 and stay with them until help arrives. While it may be difficult to tell whether someone is drunk enough to warrant help, it’s best to take every precaution.
After you call 911:
- Be prepared to provide information like what kind of alcohol they drank, when they started drinking and if any drugs were used.
- Never leave the person to “sleep it off.” On the contrary, you want to keep the person awake until help arrives.
- Don’t leave them alone, especially if they’re unconscious. Because alcohol poisoning affects the gag reflex, they may choke on their own vomit and not be able to breathe. While waiting for help, never try to make the person vomit.
- If they’re already vomiting, try to keep them sitting up. If they must lie down, make sure they’re on their side. This helps prevent choking.
- Keep them warm with a blanket.
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 what are known as “Good Samaritan” immunity laws. These laws protect callers and victims involved in an overdose situation from being arrested or prosecuted.
Alcohol Poisoning Treatment
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.
Alcohol poisoning treatment may include life support machines that breathe for those who are not able to breathe for themselves. Medications can be given to reduce vomiting, and other treatments can be used to control internal bleeding.
How To Treat Alcohol Poisoning at Home
People typically try to treat alcohol poisoning at home because they are afraid of others finding out that 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 embarrassment pales in comparison to the distress that a death would cause.
You should never treat alcohol poisoning by yourself — always call 911 as soon as alcohol poisoning is suspected.
Alcohol Poisoning Medical Procedure
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.
Alcohol Poisoning Medication
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 almost always given through an IV, as taking medications by mouth can cause choking in someone experiencing alcohol poisoning.
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 about whether your health will impact how your body metabolizes alcohol.
- Use alcoholic beverages that contain lower amounts of alcohol and avoid high-proof drinks.
You can also reduce the risk of accidental alcohol poisoning by storing alcohol where it cannot be accessed by children.
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 detox: the process of allowing your body to eliminate alcohol from its system. This can take seven to 10 days and is the time when withdrawal symptoms will occur.
The second step is rehab, which involves learning new coping strategies 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 in which healing and lasting recovery from addiction can begin. Contact us today to learn more about how our addiction treatment programs can put you on the path toward a healthier, alcohol-free future.