Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Last Updated: Feb 25th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning, also known as alcohol intoxication is a serious and life-threatening consequence of drinking too much. With the continuing rise of people binge drinking and more people becoming alcoholics, it is important to know the symptoms and signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do if you are experiencing it or with someone who is. 

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol Poisoning happens when a person consumes too much alcohol, and the body can not process it fast enough. The poisonous effects become too much for the body and can lead to death. Everyone’s body processes alcohol differently. There are so many different factors that come into play when trying to figure out how much is too much. 

  • Age: older people tend to suffer from alcohol poisoning more due to chemical changes in the body
  • Gender: females can not break down alcohol as quickly as males
  • Weight: a heavier person, has more water and blood so they will have a lower BAC
  • Metabolism: the higher the chemicals in your liver, the quicker it breaks down the alcohol.
  • Alcohol tolerance: gives a false sense of security, a high tolerance does not mean lower BAC

Alcohol is broken down mostly through the liver. In most people, the liver can break down one shot of hard liquor, one 12 ounce beer, or one five-ounce glass of wine per hour. If a person drinks more than that in an hour the excess alcohol that the liver can not break down stays in the bloodstream. And as a person continues to drink, the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) continues to rise. As a person’s BAC levels rise, so does the level of impairment. 

The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

M- Mental Confusion

U- Unresponsive/passed out

S- Snoring/Gasping for Air

T- Throwing Up/Vomiting

H- Hypothermia/low body temperature

E- Erratic Breathing

L- Loss of Consciousness

P- Pale Skin

This is an easy acronym to remember if you think someone you love may be suffering from alcohol poisoning. 

Binge Drinking and Alcohol Poisoning

Binge drinking is defined as consuming a significant amount of alcohol in a single setting. Binge drinking is the number one cause of alcohol poisoning. 4-5 drinks in 2 hours is considered a significant amount since your body can only process one drink in an hour. 

Binge drinking is thought to be most common in teens and young adults but is on the rise in adults over the age of 65. For some, they binge drink once a month, and some binge drink once a week. The more times a person binge drinks, the harder it is on the liver to stay healthy, and the amount of alcohol it can process in an hour starts to lessen. 

Someone who thinks that because they drink all the time, they can’t get alcohol poisoning is sadly mistaken.

Signs of Impairment

  • Speech- As reflexes start to relax, so does your mouth and tongue making it harder to form words.
  • Balance-The more you drink, and the more relaxed your body becomes, the more likely you are to fall or lose your balance. 
  • Vision- Blurred vision is temporary and will go away once a person is sober.
  • Vomiting- Vomiting is your body’s way of getting rid of toxins. But be careful since gag reflexes could be too relaxed and a person could choke.
  • Blackout- Blacking out is a body’s response when a person won’t stop drinking. This is extremely dangerous as the chances of death increase once a person passes out. 

Most people, once they have a second or third drink, start to feel the effects of alcohol. It starts off feeling good and happy. Some people become more social and outgoing as their inhibitions start to fade. And for some, once they get to this feeling, they will start to slow down and not drink as fast, but for those who just keep drinking, the above starts to happen.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Seizures- Too much alcohol in the bloodstream causes a drop in blood sugar levels, and if they drop low enough, it can cause life-threatening seizures. 
  • Vomiting- Choking on vomit is not the only danger from vomiting. A person can aspirate or inhale vomit into the lungs and cause serious medical problems. 
  • Slow breathing- A slow breathing rate is a key indicator of alcohol poisoning. It’s not uncommon for those experiencing alcohol poisoning to have gaps of as much as 10 seconds in between each breath.
  • Low body Temperature- In an attempt to deal with a large amount of alcohol flooding the system at once, the body can lower its temperature.
  • Pale skin- Pale skin is the first indication of low body temperature.
  • Confusion- A person is likely to forget things that are going on or have an emotional outburst. 
  • Passing Out-One of the most dangerous things a person can do is let a friend or loved one “pass out” after consuming too much alcohol. An alcohol overdose can cause unconsciousness, meaning that the person in question can’t be woken up. This is dangerous for a number of reasons, one of which is that many individuals suffering from an alcohol overdose can vomit while unconscious. In certain positions, they can choke on their vomit and die.

Treating Alcohol Poisoning

When someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, it is very important to stay calm and get help immediately. Alcohol has suppressed the brain’s automatic life functions that a person could stop breathing at any time, so knowing the things to do and not to do are important and could save a life. If you are with someone who has alcohol poisoning, the most important thing you can do is to stay calm. It is a very stressful situation, and most times, you will have been drinking too. 

If they are responsive:

  • Stay with the person- NEVER leave them alone, a person could get worse in a matter of seconds
  • Body Positioning- ALWAYS keep the person laying on their side, never on their back in case they vomit and never sitting up in case they fall over
  • Stay Calm- the calmer you are, the calmer they will be
  • Give them time- make the person comfortable, not too hot, not too cold, DO NOT give them food or anything to drink as it could make them vomit, DO NOT give them showers as the water may put the body into shock further causing harm or causing the person to fall and get hurt even more

If they are unresponsive:

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Roll on their side- if they vomit they can choke or inhale the vomit into their lungs causing more problems
  • Stay with them- never leave a person alone
  • Check their breathing- 8 or fewer breaths a minute is considered slow breathing and is extremely dangerous

Remember that alcohol poisoning is extremely dangerous, and once a person reaches the stage on passing out, they may never wake up again. So it is important to get help right away. 

What Not to Do 

What not to do is just as important as what to do when treating alcohol poisoning.

  • Do not leave them alone! Things can change in a second.
  • Do not lay them on their back, so they do not choke.
  • Do not make them stand, walk, or shower as they could fall and hurt themselves more.
  • Do not give them coffee. Caffeine worsens dehydration.
  • Do not give them food. It could cause more vomiting and could cause choking.

What Happens if Alcohol Poisoning is Left Untreated?

What most people do not understand is that even once you quit drinking, the body is still trying to process all the alcohol. A person’s blood alcohol content still continues to rise for almost an hour after they stop drinking. By that time, some people have gone home and are asleep or are alone. The chances of serious health consequences or even death are extremely high in these cases.

  • A person’s breathing could slow down to the point of stopping.
  • A person may choke on their own vomit.
  • A person’s heartbeat can become so slow it just stops.
  • If blood sugar levels drop, it could cause seizures.
  • Vomiting causes severe dehydration, which leads to brain damage and can cause seizures.
  • A person’s body temperature could drop so low it can cause severe medical issues.

What’s Next When You Have Had Enough

Did you wake up today after a hard night of drinking, and you are in the hospital because of alcohol poisoning? Or maybe you are at home feeling like you got hit by a truck. Or is someone you care about killing themselves by binge drinking to the point of alcohol poisoning? Are you lost as to what the next step is or where to turn for help? The wonderful and caring staff at 1st Step Behavioral Health will guide you every step of the way. 

If you notice signs of alcohol poisoning in yourself or others, do not ignore them. Never leave a person who is unconscious alone, and call for emergency medical help immediately. Alcohol consumption that borders on binge drinking regularly is one sign of alcohol addiction. In the days that follow, seeking substance abuse treatment might be a smart move to ensure that an overdose never happens again.

Understanding the signs of alcohol poisoning can be vital in helping loved ones. For more resources and help in treating substance abuse and addiction, reach out to 1st Step Behavioral Health today! We can help you or your loved one get on track toward sobriety and health for a lifetime. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.