Risks and Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning

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Drinking is an incredibly popular social activity in the US, with 86.4 percent of individuals ages 18 and older reporting they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, per the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Statistics provided by the same NSDUH survey indicated that 70.1 percent of these individuals reported drinking in the prior year. While the majority of people who drink do so responsibility, alcohol can lead to serious problems for many people. In some cases, people drink to excess and experience alcohol poisoning.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous and possibly life-threatening health emergency caused by highly elevated levels of alcohol in the bloodstream. When you consume alcohol, your Blood Content Alcohol (BAC) rises. When it reaches dangerous levels, it significantly affects the CNS. BAC values are expressed as a percentage of alcohol in your bloodstream and divided into several categories of impairment, with accompanying side effects of various severity:5

  • Mild: 0.00-0.05% – relaxation, sleepiness, balance, attention, speech, and memory impairments.
  • Increased: 0.06-0.15% – increased intoxication, possible aggression, risk of injury, impairment of driving skills.
  • Severe: 0.16-0.30% – significant impairment of balance, coordination, attention, memory, and judgment; vomiting, possible blackouts, or loss of consciousness.
  • Life-threatening: 0.31-0.45% – the risk of alcohol overdose, life-threatening suppression of vital life functions, risk of death.

Alcohol poisoning essentially describes an alcohol overdose. It occurs when people drink too much alcohol within a short period of time. Alcohol poisoning causes a variety of symptoms in both adults and children, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Confusion
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizures

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

Recognizing the most common signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning could save someone’s life. For example, if you notice significant impairments of coordination, impulse control, aggression, slurred speech, or questionable decision-making, like continuing to drink despite all these symptoms, monitor the affected person closely and call 911 or take them to an emergency department if you suspect a life-threatening overdose.10

The most important signs of alcohol poisoning to remember include:11

  • Slurred speech.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Confusion.
  • Balance problems.
  • Stumbling or falling.
  • Low body temperature.
  • Paleness.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Shaking.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Seizures.
  • Irregular, slow, or shallow breathing.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Dulled responses.

What Happens When Alcohol Poisoning Occurs?

When people ingest alcohol, it travels to the stomach, which breaks down about 20 percent of the alcohol and sends it into the bloodstream. Approximately 80 percent of the alcohol enters into the small intestine (duodenum) and is sent to the liver through a large blood vessel. As all the alcohol passes through the liver, it must be metabolized. The liver can only metabolize so much alcohol per hour, and excess alcohol will overwhelm it. Per Brown University, on average, the liver can break down one ounce of alcohol per hour. This rate varies from person to person based on certain factors, such as:

  • Weight
  • Size of the liver
  • Alcohol tolerance
  • Overall health
  • Empty, or full stomach

Other factors play a role in how fast alcohol is absorbed and metabolized as well. For instance, the speed of absorption is higher in beverages with higher alcohol concentrations. Carbonated alcoholic beverages, such as champagne or sparkling wine, are absorbed more rapidly by the body.

Once alcohol is absorbed, it has to be processed. Since the liver is only able to process so much at one time, the rest of the alcohol remains in the bloodstream, and essentially, an overdose occurs when there’s a high concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream.

The amount of alcohol in a person’s blood that leads to alcohol poisoning varies from person to person. Gender plays a role, as do a person’s size and body fat percentage. While specifics vary somewhat, the University of Notre Dame reports that alcohol poisoning usually occurs when someone has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.25 percent or higher. People will start to experience dysphoria when their BAC reaches 0.13 percent. At this point, people tend to feel unwell. Nausea usually begins to set in when the individual’s BAC reaches 0.16-0.199 percent. Once BAC gets to 0.02-0.249 percent, the person experiences complete mental confusion and nausea.

It’s important for people to understand that a person can overdose on alcohol before the signs of an overdose are evident. It’s also possible for more alcohol to enter the bloodstream after a person is unconscious. Mixing alcohol with drugs, such as methamphetamine, amphetamine, or cocaine, has the potential to mask symptoms of alcohol toxicity, increasing the likelihood of alcohol poisoning going undetected. Drugs that depress the central nervous system can further enhance the symptoms of alcohol toxicity.

Warning Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Certain signs can indicate that a person has consumed too much alcohol. When the euphoric effect of the alcohol wears off and turns into dysphoria, it doesn’t take many more drinks for alcohol poisoning to occur. After that, the dysphoria increases, and nausea and vomiting may set in. As soon as the person starts requiring assistance walking and is experiencing total mental confusion, alcohol poisoning may occur if the person continues to drink or if additional alcohol already in the body is absorbed.

What Are the Risks of Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can have severe, life-threatening consequences. It can happen after drinking large quantities of alcohol within a short period and requires immediate medical attention. Alcohol continues to release from the stomach and the GI tract even when the person is unconscious, and BAC continues to rise.12 

The most severe risks of alcohol poisoning include:11

  • Hurting oneself and not being able to judge the severity of the injury due to lower sensitivity to pain.
  • Aggressive outbursts, becoming violent and hurting other people.
  • Falling, drowning, stepping out into traffic.
  • Attempting to drive severely intoxicated and having a car accident.
  • Dehydration, as alcohol causes increased release of fluid by the body.
  • Having a miscarriage is one of the most severe effects of alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Digestive system damage, stomach bleeding.
  • Elevated blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat that can result in stroke or a heart attack.
  • Hypothermia, organ failure.
  • Seizures due to severely low blood sugar levels.
  • Slowed or stopped breathing.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Severe and irreversible brain damage.
  • Death, as the most severe risk of alcohol poisoning.

How Is Alcohol Poisoning Treated?

Usually, the symptoms of alcohol poisoning are apparent, but a doctor may order a urine or blood test to determine a person’s blood alcohol level. The physician may order other testing, such as a blood glucose test, to evaluate if any other symptoms of alcohol poisoning are present.

Treatment tends to revolve around carefully monitoring the individual while the body processes the alcohol. Medical staff members will monitor a person’s breathing and prevent the person from experiencing choking problems. The person is also monitored to ensure a seizure doesn’t occur. Supplemental oxygen may be given to those who are having difficulty breathing.

In more severe cases, endotracheal intubation or mask ventilation may be necessary. Intravenous fluids are given to rehydrate the person. Additionally, vitamins and glucose can prevent some of the complications that arise from alcohol toxicity.

Consequences of Alcohol Poisoning

Choking can occur as a result of alcohol poisoning. This becomes more of a concern when a person passes out from alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol decreases a person’s ability to breathe since it’s a depressant. It can also cause irregular or slowed breathing. In some cases, someone suffering from an alcohol overdose will stop breathing altogether. Sometimes, it’s due to the person accidentally inhaling vomit into the lungs, which can be fatal.

Alcohol causes dehydration on its own. When a person is vomiting from alcohol poisoning, dehydration can be severe, potentially leading to dangerously low blood pressure rate and rapid heart rate (tachycardia). Alcohol poisoning may contribute to an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), and in some cases, the heart will stop beating completely. A person’s blood sugar level drops from alcohol poisoning, and it can get low enough to cause a seizure.

An alcohol overdose may cause a person’s body temperature to decrease. Cardiac arrest can occur if the person’s body temperature decreases enough. Brain damage is possible from alcohol poisoning because of a decrease in oxygen reaching the brain. Death from alcohol poisoning can occur due to any of these reasons.

Immediate emergency medical care is imperative because the more serious consequences of alcohol poisoning can be permanent or fatal. They can, however, often be prevented or mitigated with prompt medical assistance.

How to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning?

The most reliable way of preventing alcohol poisoning is drinking moderately and responsibly. That means keeping track of the amount of alcohol you’ve ingested by paying attention to the number of drinks you’ve had. You can lower the chances of significant health risks by:13, 14

  • Not drinking on an empty stomach. Food can slow down the absorption of alcohol, so it doesn’t enter the bloodstream as fast.
  • Drinking enough water, at least 16 ounces for every alcoholic drink you consume.
  • Slowing down. The body can’t safely process more than one unit of alcohol per an hour.
  • Not taking drugs with a sedative effect or opioid painkillers, as the combination can cause slowed breathing and suppress vital body functions.
  • Avoiding mixed drinks and cocktails, as they usually contain higher alcohol content, and it’s more difficult to track the amount of alcohol you’ve ingested.
  • Avoiding energy drinks and drinks that contain caffeine because they can mask the effects of alcohol on the body.

Frequently Asked Questions