Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning, or alcohol overdose, can be deadly, so it’s important to know the signs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 6 people die every day because of drinking too much in the United States. About 76% of those who die from drinking are adults age 35–64, and 76% are men. In about 30% of these cases, the person who died struggled with alcohol use before their death.

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Risk Factors

Some risk factors can make it more likely someone will experience alcohol poisoning. These include height and weight, general health, and the amount of food consumed before drinking. A person who is smaller and weighs less than average for their gender may be more likely to get alcohol poisoning after drinking less than a larger person. If someone has a meal before drinking, it can help reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning, compared to drinking heavily on an empty stomach.

If someone combines alcohol with other drugs, they may be at a higher risk of alcohol poisoning. Additionally, alcohol tolerance levels impact the likelihood that someone will experience alcohol poisoning.

Stages & Progression of Symptoms

Alcohol poisoning signs often reflect the blood alcohol level (BAC). As the blood alcohol level rises, the signs of alcohol poisoning can increase. The BAC can continue to rise for up to 40 minutes after the last drink. In the early stages, alcohol poisoning signs may be identical to signs of being drunk. However, as more alcohol gets into the bloodstream, the signs can become more serious. Not all people will have all symptoms at each stage. However, more serious outcomes, like death, can occur at the lower end of the BAC range if someone isn’t used to drinking. Symptoms progress with a higher BAC:

BAC Severity of Alcohol Overdose Symptoms
0 to 0.05% Mild
  • Relaxation
  • Sleepiness
  • Mild speech problems
  • Mild memory and attention issues
  • Mild coordination and balance problems
0.06 to 0.15% Increased
  • Aggression
  • Very impaired driving
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Moderate speech problems
  • Moderate memory and attention issues
  • Moderate coordination and balance problems
0.16 to 0.30% Severe
  • Dangerously impaired driving
  • Dangerously impaired decision-making
  • Blackouts
  • Vomiting
  • Possible loss of consciousness
  • Severely delayed reaction time
  • Severe speech problems
  • Severe memory and attention issues
  • Severe coordination and balance problems
0.31 to 0.45% Life-threatening
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Problems maintaining vital bodily functions, such as body temperature or irregular breathing and/or heartrate
  • High risk of death

Severe or Life-Threatening Alcohol Poisoning

Severe cases of alcohol poisoning require emergency medical attention. The person’s body can start to shut down, which can be deadly without treatment. When in doubt, call 911 or the National Capital Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. While awaiting emergency assistance, there are several steps you can take to ensure safety, including:

  • Trying to keep the person awake
  • Trying to keep the person sitting up
  • Giving the person water to drink
  • Lying the person on their side if they have passed out
  • Keeping the person warm
  • Staying by the person until help arrives

Detoxing From Alcohol Poisoning

Detox from alcohol poisoning usually takes place in the hospital. Doctors will be able to monitor the person to make sure they stay safe. Because drinking too much can make a person stop breathing, doctors may put a breathing tube in someone who is unconscious. The person will also likely get an intravenous line for fluids to stay hydrated. The fluids also may contain substances to keep the person healthy during the detox process. These substances include:

  • Dextrose
  • Magnesium
  • Folate
  • Thiamine
  • Multivitamins

Other symptoms linked to alcohol overdose may also be treated. For example, if the person is vomiting, they can get anti-nausea drugs. If they are severely agitated, they can be given a sedative. Doctors will also observe the person to manage any complications of alcohol overdose that occur, like:

  • Low blood sugar
  • Blood that is too acidic
  • Low potassium
  • Low magnesium
  • Low blood protein
  • Low calcium
  • Low phosphate
  • Fluid problems
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Vein problems
  • Low body temperature
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irregular heart rhythm

Factors Affecting Detox Time

Different factors can affect how long it takes to detox from drinking. These include:

  • Amount used: The more someone drinks, the higher their BAC may be. It may take longer for someone with a high BAC to get rid of the alcohol than for someone with a lower BAC.
  • Frequency of use: Someone who does not drink often may have a higher BAC than someone more used to drinking.
  • Age: Older people may have medical conditions that can make detox take longer.
  • Overall health: Someone with a healthy liver may be able to get the alcohol out of their body faster than someone with an unhealthy liver.
  • Other substances: If someone took drugs along with alcohol, it may take longer to clear both from the body.

Recovery From Alcohol Poisoning

If someone survives for 24 hours after alcohol poisoning, they will typically recover. However, the person may develop alcohol withdrawal syndrome or AWS. For this reason, doctors may keep the person in the hospital for 72 hours after their BAC has gone down to zero.

When someone is in the hospital for drinking too much, doctors will likely ask them questions from the CAGE questionnaire or the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, or AUDIT. These tests help the doctor figure out how much the person struggles with drinking.

If you or someone you know is having a hard time cutting back on drinking, they may need help. Contact the experts at The Recovery Village Columbus to learn more about how we can assist.

The Recovery Village Columbus aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.