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Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Alcohol Poisoning?

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Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person misuses alcohol by consuming an excessive amount in a short period of time—more than their body can handle—and causing their blood alcohol content (BAC) to reach dangerous levels. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion, vomiting, seizures, and even coma or death. This is a life-threatening medical emergency, and it’s vital to seek medical attention immediately for any individuals you suspect might be suffering from alcohol poisoning.

If you are struggling with alcohol misuse, we encourage you to contact us at Guardian Recovery. We offer intensive addiction treatment programs that provide a highly structured and supportive environment. These are comprised of a wide range of evidence-based services, including medical detox, individualized therapy, relapse prevention, and aftercare planning. Our team of addiction professionals ensures that individuals receive the necessary tools and resources they need to address their substance use issues through multiple curative approaches.

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How Does Alcohol Poisoning Occur?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when an individual drinks a dangerously high amount of alcohol in a short period. It is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Factors That Contribute to Alcohol Poisoning Include:

  • Binge Drinking—Alcohol poisoning often results from binge drinking, which involves consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short span of time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this pattern of drinking typically involves the consumption of 4-5 standard drinks or more for women and men, respectively, within approximately two hours. (1)
  • High BAC—When a person drinks alcohol at a faster rate than their body can metabolize it, their BAC rises significantly. A high BAC level can impair vital functions and is the primary catalyst for the development of alcohol poisoning.
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) Depression—Alcohol lessens brain activity, impairs cognitive functions, and adversely affects vital bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate. Excessive alcohol use can eventually overtake the CNS, resulting in alcohol poisoning.
  • Vomiting and Impaired Gag Reflex—Alcohol can irritate the stomach lining, leading to nausea and vomiting. However, excessive amounts of alcohol can interfere with a person’s gag reflex, which may cause them to aspirate or choke on their own vomit, potentially causing asphyxiation.
  • Dehydration—Alcohol increases urine production and can lead to dehydration. This can worsen the effects of alcohol poisoning and contribute to electrolyte imbalances and organ dysfunction.

Polysubstance Misuse—Combining alcohol with other substances, such as opioids or sedatives, can greatly increase the risk of overdose.

Common Side Effects of Alcohol Poisoning & Blackouts

Alcohol poisoning and blackouts are both serious consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. Blackouts are marked by memory loss and confusion, and alcohol poisoning can lead to coma or death.

Side Effects of Alcohol Poisoning Include:

  • Nausea, vomiting, and dehydration
  • Confusion, disorientation, and difficulty understanding or communicating.
  • Slow or irregular breathing patterns.
  • Pale or blue skin (cyanosis) due to reduced oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Hypothermia (dangerously low body temperature), especially when in a cold environment.
  • Loss of consciousness and unresponsiveness.

Side Effects of Blackouts Include:

  • Complete loss of memory regarding events or activities that occurred when intoxicated.
  • Incomplete actions, such as starting conversations, engaging in activities, or even leaving a location without memory of doing so.
  • Fragmented recall (also known as brownouts) involves being able to access selected pieces of memory but being unable to form a cohesive timeline of events. (2)
  • Accidents, falls, or injuries from physical impairments and risky behaviors.
  • Emotional distress after waking up, including feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety.
  • Impaired judgment, decision-making, and impulse control
  • Risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex, driving under the influence, or engaging in dangerous activities.

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Is There a Difference Between Alcohol Poisoning & Being Drunk?

There is a significant difference between being drunk and having alcohol poisoning. While being moderately impaired tends to adversely affect judgment and coordination, alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening condition that typically depends on a person’s BAC level and requires immediate medical attention.

Although factors like age, sex, metabolism, and the rate of alcohol use can play a role in how alcohol affects an individual’s overdose risk, a BAC of 0.30% or higher is commonly considered alcohol poisoning. (3) That said, death may be more likely to occur at levels nearing or above 0.40%. During this time, the CNS becomes severely depressed, and potentially life-threatening complications can develop.

How Long Does It Take for Alcohol Poisoning & Its Effects To Leave Your Body?

Alcohol poisoning and the rate at which its effects subside depend on several factors, including individual metabolism, the amount of alcohol consumed, and overall health. Moreover, the effects of alcohol poisoning can endure even after alcohol has been metabolized and cleared from the body. The human body typically metabolizes alcohol at an average rate of approximately 0.015 grams per deciliter (g/dL) of BAC per hour. This is approximately one standard drink per hour, equivalent to 12 oz. of 5% beer, 5 oz. of 12% wine, or 1.5 oz. of 40% distilled spirits. (4)

Long-Term Side Effects of Alcohol Poisoning or Overdose

If not promptly addressed, alcohol poisoning can have long-term effects on various aspects of a person’s mental and physical health. An alcohol overdose can cause seizures and result in permanent brain damage if the flow of oxygen to the brain is blocked. If the brain begins to fail, it can damage or cause the failure of other organs, such as the heart, liver, and pancreas, leading to severe health complications or premature death.

Alcohol poisoning can also lead to permanent cognitive deficits, such as impaired memory, shortened attention span, and difficulties with problem-solving and decision-making. It can likewise increase the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Alcohol Poisoning Deaths & Statistics

Although relatively uncommon, alcohol poisoning can be lethal. The CDC reports that an average of 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths occur annually, which translates to an average of six deaths each day. (5) Similar to drug overdoses, it is believed that alcohol poisoning fatalities are underestimated, as the person’s cause of death can sometimes be attributable to other factors, such as accidents or injuries that take place while an individual is severely intoxicated.

The majority of alcohol poisoning deaths occur among adults aged 35–64 years. However, young adults, primarily those in the 18–24 age range, are at an increased risk of alcohol poisoning due to factors such as binge drinking and higher levels of alcohol use. Men are more likely to suffer from alcohol poisoning and have higher mortality rates than women, and this disparity may be at least partially related to alcohol use patterns and social factors. Although most alcohol poisoning deaths occur among non-Hispanic whites, American Indians and Alaskan Natives have the highest number per million individuals of any race.

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If you or a loved one have struggled to quit drinking and have been unable to do so, you may have an alcohol use disorder and would benefit from a comprehensive inpatient or outpatient program to overcome it. Reach out to Guardian Recovery to learn more about our holistic approach to addiction treatment and receive a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check. Our team of experienced professionals is dedicated to helping you achieve long-lasting recovery and improve your overall well-being. Don’t hesitate to take the first step towards a healthier, happier life of sobriety—contact us today.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
  2. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/brownout-vs-blackout/
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/blood-alcohol-content
  4. https://madd.org/statistic/a-standard-drink-is-defined-as-12-ounces-of-beer-5-ounces-of-wine-or-1-5-ounces-of-distilled-spirits-which-contain-the-same-amount-of-alcohol/
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/alcohol-poisoning-deaths/index.html

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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