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Difference Between Alcohol Poisoning and Being Drunk With a Hangover

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Do I have alcohol poisoning or just a hangover? Many are unsure of the difference. A night of binge drinking can lead to trouble the next day. Uncomfortable symptoms may develop known as a hangover. These symptoms can vary in severity leading many to wonder if they are experiencing a hangover or something worse. A potentially dangerous health condition caused by excessive drinking is known as alcohol poisoning. Though hangovers and alcohol poisoning come as the result of drinking, they have two very different outcomes.

If you or someone you know is having difficulty controlling their drinking, treatment may be a necessary option. Guardian Recovery is a national leader in providing quality substance use treatment. We are committed to providing each of our clients with the tools needed for a lifestyle of long term recovery. Your recovery journey can start today by calling Guardian Recovery.

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How Can You Tell if Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning or Is Drunk?

The term “drunk” (1) is used to describe the effects of alcohol intoxication. Alcohol is a depressant causing the body’s central nervous system to slow down. An increased amount of this depression results in the “drunk” sensations. Common symptoms of this level of intoxication include:

  • Slurred speech.
  • Loss of motor skills.
  • Lowered inhibitions.
  • Mild sedation.
  • Some limits to cognitive functioning.

This state of alcohol intoxication is enjoyable for many. If alcohol consumption continues to occur after this state of intoxication, it may lead to a condition known as alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning (2) is a potentially dangerous health condition with different side effects. Alcohol is viewed by your body as a toxin. When your body is unable to filter this toxin through the liver at the rate that it is consumed, the result is alcohol poisoning. This typically occurs during periods of binge drinking and may require medical intervention. During alcohol poisoning, the body is no longer just feeling the depressive symptoms of alcohol, but it is also feeling the physical symptoms of the poison within the bloodstream.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning or Acute Intoxication

Alcohol is a toxin that must be filtered through the liver. If alcohol is consumed too quickly, the liver cannot keep up. This results in alcohol poisoning. When alcohol poisoning occurs, the body begins to exhibit symptoms that may be potentially life threatening. These symptoms include (3):

  • Mental confusion, stupor.
  • Difficulty remaining conscious, or inability to wake up.
  • Vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute).
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Dulled responses, such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking).
  • Extremely low body temperature, bluish skin color, or paleness.

If someone who has been drinking heavily begins to exhibit these symptoms, medical intervention is required.

Signs Someone Is Drunk from Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol intoxication, also known as “being drunk”, is a spectrum of symptoms. Ranging from mild to severe, these symptoms increase in intensity as more alcohol is consumed. They affect both mental and physical symptoms and include symptoms like:

  • Slurred speech.
  • Slow and deliberate movement.
  • Decreased alertness.
  • Quick, slow or fluctuating pace of speech.
  • Overly friendly.
  • Loud.
  • Changing volume of speech.
  • Red, watery eyes.
  • Sweating.
  • Lack of eye focus.
  • Flushed (red) face.
  • Swaying, drowsy.
  • Stumbling.
  • Bumping into things.
  • Losing train of thought.

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Hangover or Alcohol Poisoning

There is a large difference between a typical hangover and alcohol poisoning. The term hangover (4) is used to describe the variety of side effects from excessive alcohol consumption. Typically tied to dehydration, these side effects can range from mild discomfort to flu like symptoms resulting in days spent recovering.

Alcohol poisoning is far more intense than a hangover. Usually felt while drinking or immediately after, alcohol poisoning is a potentially life threatening condition. Alcohol poisoning is not related to dehydration or simple discomfort related to alcohol consumption. Alcohol poisoning is the result of too many toxins from alcohol in the bloodstream. The body begins to shut down unless it is able to recover from the impact of these toxins.

What Should You Do If Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol is potentially life threatening. If someone is exhibiting symptoms of alcohol poisoning, it is important to ensure that they do not consume any more alcohol. Contact medical professionals as soon as possible to ensure the greatest chance of recovery.

At What Blood Alcohol Level Does Alcohol Poisoning Begin?

The level of alcohol measurable in the bloodstream is known as Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) (5). This level is determined through a breathalyzer, blood test, or urine test. Impairment can be felt once the BAC reaches .06%. The legal BAC limit for operating a motor vehicle is .08%. Typically, once the BAC reaches levels of .16% and above, the person drinking is severely impaired and potentially in danger. Any blood alcohol level above .31% is considered life threatening and will result in alcohol poisoning.

Factors that Determine How Much Someone Can Drink Before Getting Drunk

Many factors play a role in the effect that alcohol will have on a person. Some of these factors include:

  • Whether the person is male or female.
  • Metabolic rate.
  • Type of build.
  • Amount of body fat.
  • Drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Drinking quickly.
  • Percentage of alcohol in a drink.
  • The type of alcohol.
  • The use of other drugs.

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Frequent alcohol poisoning or binge drinking can be a symptom of an alcohol use disorder. Treatment may be required to regain control of your life. If this is you, help is available. Guardian Recovery committed to providing quality substance use treatment to each of our clients. With locations across the country, help may be closer than you think. Call today to speak with a treatment advisor to review your options. Your journey to a lifestyle of recovery can start 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.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


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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