Alcohol poisoning is a serious and sometimes deadly consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking too much too quickly can affect your breathing, heart rate, body temperature and gag reflex and potentially lead to coma and death.
Alcohol poisoning can also occur when adults or children accidentally or intentionally drink household products that contain alcohol. A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical attention. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call for emergency medical help right away.
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning signs and symptoms include:
Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
Irregular breathing (a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)
Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
Low body temperature (hypothermia)
Passing out (unconsciousness) and can’t be awakened
It’s not necessary to have all these signs and symptoms before you seek help. A person who is unconscious or can’t be awakened is at risk of dying.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning — even if you don’t see the classic signs and symptoms — seek immediate medical care.
Alcohol poisoning is an emergency
If you’re with someone who has been drinking a lot of alcohol and you see any of the signs or symptoms above, here’s what to do:
Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Never assume that a person will sleep off alcohol poisoning. Be prepared to provide information. If you know, be sure to tell hospital or emergency personnel the kind and amount of alcohol the person drank, and when. Don’t leave an unconscious person alone. Because alcohol poisoning affects the way your gag reflex works, someone with alcohol poisoning may choke on his or her own vomit and not be able to breathe. While waiting for help, don’t try to make the person vomit because he or she could choke. Help a person who is vomiting. Try to keep him or her sitting up. If the person must lie down, make sure to turn his or her head to the side — this helps prevent choking. Try to keep the person awake to prevent loss of consciousness.
Don’t be afraid to get help
It can be difficult to decide if you think someone is drunk enough to warrant medical intervention, but it’s best to err on the side of caution. You may worry about the consequences for yourself or your friend or loved one, particularly if you’re underage. But the consequences of not getting the right help in time can be far more serious.
Alcohol in the form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is found in alcoholic beverages, mouthwash, cooking extracts, some medications and certain household products. Ethyl alcohol poisoning generally results from drinking too many alcoholic beverages, especially in a short period of time.
Other forms of alcohol — including isopropyl alcohol (found in rubbing alcohol, lotions and some cleaning products) and methanol or ethylene glycol (a common ingredient in antifreeze, paints and solvents) — can cause another type of toxic poisoning that requires emergency treatment.
A major cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking — a pattern of heavy drinking when a male rapidly consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours, or a female downs at least four drinks within two hours. An alcohol binge can occur over hours or last up to several days.
You can consume a fatal dose before you pass out. Even when you’re unconscious or you’ve stopped drinking, alcohol continues to be released from your stomach and intestines into your bloodstream, and the level of alcohol in your body continues to rise.
How much is too much?
Unlike food, which can take hours to digest, alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body — long before most other nutrients. And it takes a lot more time for your body to get rid of the alcohol you’ve consumed.
Most alcohol is processed by your liver, and in general, it takes about one hour for your liver to process (metabolize) the alcohol in one drink.
One drink is defined as:
12 ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 milliliters) of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)
Mixed drinks may contain more than one serving of alcohol and take even longer to metabolize.
Risk Factors of Alcohol Poisoning
A number of factors can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning, including:
Your size and weight
Your overall health
Whether you’ve eaten recently
Whether you’re combining alcohol with other drugs
The percentage of alcohol in your drinks
The rate and amount of alcohol consumption
Your tolerance level
Complications of Alcohol Poisoning
Severe complications can result from alcohol poisoning, including:
–Choking. Alcohol may cause vomiting. Because it depresses your gag reflex, this increases the risk of choking on vomit if you’ve passed out.
–Stopping breathing. Accidentally inhaling vomit into your lungs can lead to a dangerous or fatal interruption of breathing (asphyxiation).
–Severe dehydration. Vomiting can result in severe dehydration, leading to dangerously low blood pressure and fast heart rate.
–Seizures. Your blood sugar level may drop low enough to cause seizures.
–Hypothermia. Your body temperature may drop so low that it leads to cardiac arrest.
–Brain damage. Heavy drinking may cause irreversible brain damage.
–Death. Any of the issues above can lead to death.
Tests and Diagnosis
In addition to checking for visible signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, your doctor will likely order blood and urine tests to check blood alcohol levels and identify other signs of alcohol toxicity, such as low blood sugar.
Alcohol poisoning treatment usually involves supportive care while your body rids itself of the alcohol. This typically includes:
-Prevention of breathing or choking problems
-Fluids given through a vein (intravenously) to prevent dehydration
-Use of vitamins and glucose to help prevent serious complications of alcohol poisoning
-Adults and children who have accidentally consumed methanol or isopropyl alcohol may need hemodialysis — a mechanical way of filtering waste and toxins from your system — to speed the removal of alcohol from their bloodstream