More than 600,000 people land in emergency departments every year because they’re too intoxicated — and an average of six people die every day from alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks a lot of alcohol in a short time period. High levels of alcohol can shut down parts of the brain that support critical life functions, such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
Without prompt treatment, alcohol poisoning can kill you. A person who has consumed a deadly amount of alcohol requires medical attention and close monitoring until their body can clear the alcohol from their system. In some cases, a person may need IV fluids, oxygen and other supportive treatments.
Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms
There can be a fine line between being drunk and dangerously intoxicated. But knowing the signs of an alcohol overdose can mean the difference between life and death.
Warning signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of coordination
- Unconsciousness or semi-consciousness
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Clammy skin
- Pale or bluish skin or lips
- A low body temperature (hypothermia)
A person may not experience all the symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Don’t wait for more symptoms to appear before calling for help. Alcohol poisoning can creep up slowly and may be difficult to spot at first. And it can occur even after a person has stopped consuming alcohol. Blood alcohol levels can continue to rise for up to 40 minutes after a person’s last drink.
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 err on the side of caution.
After you call 911, here’s what to do:
- Be prepared to provide information such as 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 states and college campuses 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
Unfortunately, there is little you can do at home to treat alcohol poisoning. And home remedies — such as drinking coffee or taking a cold shower — are useless. Alcohol poisoning is an emergency best handled by professionals in a hospital setting.
In the hospital, the person will be monitored closely until the alcohol clears their system. They’ll likely be placed on their side, to prevent them from choking if they vomit. If they’re having trouble breathing on their own, they may need to have a breathing tube inserted and a machine will temporarily breathe for them.
Most likely, they’ll have an IV inserted into a vein. This will allow them to receive fluids to prevent or treat dehydration or correct electrolyte imbalances. Sometimes, an alcohol overdose can lead to hypoglycemia, or low blood-sugar levels, which can lead to seizures. If that happens, IV glucose will be administered.
How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for alcohol poisoning. Generally, it takes several hours for a person to recover from the alcohol toxicity. It can take even longer if a person suffers complications or long-term damage.
A person suffering from kidney problems or liver failure will have a harder time recovering from alcohol poisoning. And severe cases of alcohol poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage, liver damage and other health problems.
While regular heavy drinkers often have a higher tolerance to alcohol, it won’t prevent them from developing alcohol poisoning. In fact, 30 percent of alcohol-poisoning deaths are attributed to alcohol dependence, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
How to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is usually accidental, but there are some important ways you can prevent it from happening.
First, know your limits and avoid binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in one sitting for a woman and five or more drinks for a man. According to CDC estimates, more than 38 million Americans binge drink approximately four times a month.
Secondly, never combine alcohol with other drugs, particularly those that slow the central nervous system. Mixing alcohol and other drugs can vastly increase the chances of overdose.
Third, if you or someone you know is experiencing signs of high blood alcohol content, stop drinking immediately. Warning signs that you’ve consumed too much include: slurred speech, poor coordination, memory loss and aggressive or reckless behavior.