What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

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Alcohol poisoning is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when a person drinks too much alcohol in a short period of time, affecting the body’s ability to function properly. Symptoms can include confusion, vomiting, seizures, and difficulty breathing. If you suspect you or someone else is experiencing alcohol poisoning, it is vital to seek medical attention immediately.

Guardian Recovery offers medical detox and treatment programs to help individuals overcome alcohol addiction and prevent the risk of alcohol poisoning. Our team of caring professionals provides comprehensive care and support to help those we treat achieve long-lasting recovery and improve the quality of their lives.

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Is Alcohol Intoxication the Same as Alcohol Poisoning?

Although alcohol intoxication and alcohol poisoning share some similarities, they are not the same condition. Alcohol intoxication refers to the effects of consuming excess alcohol, such as impaired judgment and coordination. In contrast, alcohol poisoning also includes these effects but is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when a person consumes a dangerous amount of alcohol in a short period of time.

What Demographics Are Most at Risk of Poisoning From Alcohol Consumption?

Several demographic factors may put individuals at heightened risk of alcohol poisoning. While alcohol poisoning can affect individuals of any age or background, certain groups may be more vulnerable. For example, men tend to drink more than women, and this may be one reason why they represent more than three-quarters of those who die from alcohol poisoning. (1) Also, middle-aged people may be more likely than their younger counterparts to suffer from alcohol poisoning because they typically take more prescription drugs, which places them at a greater risk. (2)

Other Demographics at Higher Risk Include:

  • College students, especially those exposed to a campus culture that promotes heavy alcohol use.
  • People with alcohol-related disorders or co-occurring mental health conditions.
  • People with low alcohol tolerance due to genetic factors or physiological differences.
  • People with limited knowledge or education about safe drinking practices and signs of alcohol poisoning.

Causes of Alcohol Poisoning & Intoxication

When a person drinks alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream and affects the central nervous system (CNS). Consuming alcohol in large amounts or rapidly can overwhelm the body’s ability to process and eliminate it, resulting in high levels of alcohol in the body.

Common Causes of Alcohol Poisoning & Intoxication Include:

  • Binge drinking, or consuming more than four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in about two hours. (3)
  • Drinking high-alcohol content beverages, such as distilled spirits or strong liquor.
  • Being unaccustomed to drinking alcohol, having a low tolerance, or experiencing a metabolic disorder.
  • Combining alcohol with certain medications, such as depressants or opioids, and illicit drugs.
  • Pre-existing health conditions, such as liver disease, respiratory problems, or a history of alcoholism
  • Drinking on an empty stomach.

What Happens to Your Brain & Body When You Have Alcohol Poisoning?

When a person has alcohol poisoning, the body’s usual processes for breaking down and expelling alcohol cannot keep up with the high levels of consumption. This can lead to a dangerous buildup of alcohol in the bloodstream, leading to a variety of harmful effects.

Central Nervous System Depression

Alcohol slows brain activity, and severe depressant effects can lead to confusion, disorientation, impaired balance and coordination, and slow, shallow, or stopped breathing. The person may also exhibit decreased responsiveness to stimuli. In severe cases, it can also result in unconsciousness and respiratory failure, often evidenced by clammy, pale, or bluish skin and nails (cyanosis).

Aspiration & Vomiting

Alcohol poisoning often triggers the body’s natural response to remove toxic substances, causing nausea and vomiting. However, if a person is not fully conscious, they may not have the ability to clear their airway, which can result in the inhalation of vomit (aspiration) and, eventually, choking or lung damage. (4)

Hypothermia

Alcohol can cause a significant decrease in body temperature (hypothermia) to dangerously low levels, leading to shivering, pale or bluish skin, and potential organ damage. This is more likely to occur in cool or cold weather. Meanwhile, the vasodilatation caused by alcohol provides a deceptive sensation of warmth while also increasing heat loss through radiation.

Liver Damage & Kidney Dysfunction

Alcohol is primarily metabolized in the liver, and chronic, excessive alcohol use can lead to liver damage, including alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver, and cirrhosis. Severe alcohol poisoning can also affect kidney function and potentially lead to kidney damage. Moreover, alcohol can inflame the stomach lining, leading to gastritis, ulcers, or gastrointestinal bleeding. Severe alcohol poisoning can result in damage to the digestive system and potentially life-threatening conditions.

Other Severe Health Issues

Alcohol is a diuretic, and heavy alcohol use without sufficient fluid intake can result in severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, which can compromise the functioning of various body systems. Heavy alcohol use can interfere with the heart’s normal rhythm, leading to an irregular heartbeat, a drop in blood pressure, and cardiovascular collapse. In serious cases, this condition can trigger seizures, possibly causing a loss of consciousness, convulsions, and other injuries, such as head trauma.

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How Much Do You Have To Drink To Get Alcohol Poisoning?

The amount of alcohol required to cause alcohol poisoning varies depending on several factors, including the person’s body weight, tolerance, metabolism, and individual susceptibility. Furthermore, combining alcohol with other substances, having a pre-existing health condition, or ingestion of certain medications can increase the risk of alcohol poisoning even with lower amounts of alcohol. Although there is no specific quantity of alcohol that will always lead to alcohol poisoning, a BAC of 0.31% or above is generally considered life-threatening. (5)

Alcohol Poisoning Prevention Methods Include:

  • Drink in Moderation—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. (6)
  • Know Your Limits—Understand your own tolerance for alcohol and be aware of how it affects you.
  • Avoid Binge Drinking—Binge drinking, defined as consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period, significantly increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.
  • Stay Hydrated—Drink water or non-alcoholic beverages between alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated. Dehydration can worsen the effects of alcohol poisoning.
  • Avoid Mixing Alcohol With Other Substances—Mixing alcohol with certain medications, illicit drugs, or other substances can have dangerous effects, especially other depressants that can amplify its effects and increase the risk of alcohol poisoning.

Educate Yourself—Learn about the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning so that you can identify them in yourself or others.

Testing Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Levels

Testing blood alcohol content (BAC) levels is a common method used to determine the concentration of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. BAC levels are typically expressed as a percentage, such as 0.08%, which is the legal driving limit in most areas. Various tests can measure BAC levels, providing evidence of a person’s level of intoxication.

Tests for BAC Levels Include:

  • Breathalyzer—Often used by law enforcement, a breathalyzer is a portable device that requires an individual to blow into it, thereby estimating their BAC by analyzing their breath for alcohol.
  • Blood Test—These tests are commonly used in medical settings and involve drawing a blood sample and analyzing it in a lab to determine BAC.

Urine Test—These tests measure the concentration of alcohol byproducts in a person’s urine. Urine tests are less reliable in determining real-time BAC levels and are less commonly used for this purpose.

What Should You Do if Someone Is Intoxicated by Alcohol?

If you encounter someone who is intoxicated, assess their condition and look for any potential signs of alcohol poisoning. If they are exhibiting symptoms, call 911. While waiting for first responders, remain by their side, monitor their condition, and try to keep them alert if possible. Do not offer them food or coffee. but do provide them with moderate amounts of water to help with hydration. If they are vomiting, ensure they are positioned on their side to prevent choking. Once medical professionals arrive, provide them with any relevant information about the person’s condition and follow their instructions.

How Do Doctors Treat Alcohol Poisoning & Associated Symptoms?

When treating alcohol poisoning and its associated symptoms, doctors focus on stabilizing the person’s condition, preventing complications, and providing supportive care.

Common Steps & Interventions Used in Treatment Include:

  • Assessment of vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, temperature, and mental status.
  • Airway management, including positioning the person correctly, providing oxygen, or using assisted ventilation.
  • Fluid replacement, by administering intravenous fluids to restore hydration and maintain electrolyte levels.
  • Medication to manage symptoms and complications.
  • Monitoring and treatment of complications, such as respiratory distress, seizures, or organ dysfunction.

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Reach Out to Guardian Recovery for Help With Alcohol Addiction Today

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol use or have previously experienced alcohol poisoning, professional help is likely needed. Beyond emergency care and medical detox, ongoing treatment can include inpatient or outpatient programs, individualized therapy, support groups, aftercare planning, and more. For a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check and to learn more about our streamlined admissions process, contact us today and begin your recovery journey.

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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.newportacademy.com/resources/substance-abuse/teen-alcohol-poisoning/
  2. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/alcohol-poisoning-overview
  3. https://sites.duke.edu/apep/module-2-the-abcs-of-intoxication/explore-more/alcohol-induced-vomiting-can-be-fatal/
  4. https://sites.duke.edu/apep/module-2-the-abcs-of-intoxication/explore-more/alcohol-induced-vomiting-can-be-fatal/
  5. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16640-alcohol-poisoning
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm

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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:

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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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