Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone drinks more alcohol than their body can process. This can result in severe bodily harm, including death.
There are approximately 88,000 alcohol-related deaths every year. Alcohol remains a leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.
While many alcohol-related deaths are due to the long-term effects of drinking, like liver failure and kidney problems, alcohol poisoning is responsible for many deaths. These deaths are caused by drinking copius amounts of alcohol in a short time.
In 2015, it was estimated that alcohol poisoning was responsible for the deaths of six Americans per day.
Alcohol is a toxin. The liver filters out alcohol from the bloodstream but can only do so at a certain rate (about one drink per hour).
Alcohol is absorbed quickly — more quickly than food — and hits the bloodstream rapidly. If a person drinks more than their liver can keep up with (more than approximately one drink per hour), there is a backup of alcohol in the bloodstream, causing a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The higher the BAC, the more poisonous the blood becomes.
Ethanol, the active ingredient in consumable alcohol, crosses from the blood to the nerve cells of the brain. Though it is unknown exactly how ethanol works, the effects have been studied and are predictable.
Once in the brain, ethanol creates pleasurable feelings, including a lack of inhibition that is caused by a depression of certain lobe functions. Sugar metabolism slows down, and motor pathways become overactive. Sedative feelings occur as more ethanol enters the brain.
The higher the BAC, the more toxic the blood becomes and the more severe the effects become. As the liver works to detoxify the blood, blood sugar regulation is thrown off.
Some of the effects of alcohol poisoning are also caused by acetaldehyde, an even more toxic byproduct released during the metabolism of ethanol.
More of the brain’s functions become depressed, and necessary reflexes like the gag reflex may be stopped.
Body temperature drops. Blood vessels dilate, causing flushing and putting more pressure on the heart with higher cardiac output.
The kidneys try to aid in detoxification by increasing urination, and this leads to dehydration. Breathing and heart rate may slow or stop, resulting in amnesia (a “blackout”) or loss of blood flow to the brain, which could result in coma, death, or brain damage.
Even when someone stops drinking, the alcohol they’ve already consumed may still be metabolizing due to a backup at the liver, which is still working to filter the alcohol from the blood. The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) may continue to rise for another 30 to 40 minutes, meaning alcohol poisoning can occur during that time as well.
Ready to get Help?
We’re here 24/7. Pick up the phone.
If someone is drinking excessively, it may take time for the full effects to occur, as the alcohol takes time to metabolize in the body. The individual may at first just appear very drunk. Then, they may begin to exhibit symptoms of a more serious issue.
Signs of alcohol poisoning include the following:
The following are signs of alcohol poisoning in the extreme and life-threatening stage:
Depending on an individual’s metabolism, how quickly they are drinking, and the amount of alcohol in their drinks, alcohol poisoning can happen fast. Someone might appear drunk one moment and then begin showing signs of alcohol poisoning. Or, they might not exhibit signs of alcohol poisoning until well after they have stopped drinking.
This is why it’s so important to monitor anyone who has consumed excessive amounts of alcohol and seek emergency medical treatment even if there’s a chance of alcohol poisoning. It may be a matter of life and death.
Due to the delayed metabolism of alcohol, an individual may not begin to show signs of alcohol poisoning until 30 to 40 minutes after they have stopped drinking. This can include after they have “passed out” or fallen asleep.
Allowing someone who has consumed an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period to “sleep it off” can be very dangerous for a number of reasons. Those around them are less likely to notice the signs of alcohol poisoning, especially subtle yet incredibly dangerous symptoms like slowed breathing, confusion, and low body temperature.
Choking is also a significant concern. Even if someone has not consumed enough alcohol to induce coma or death, parts of their brain function may be suppressed, including the gag reflex. This can cause an unconscious person of choking on their own vomit and dying of affixation.
Alcohol poising can be fatal. Approximately 2,200 people die in the U.S. every year from it.
An extremely high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level can be life-threatening in a number of ways, with the poisonous effects of alcohol causing vital functions of the body — including breathing, heart rate, and body temperature regulation — to shut down. Acute alcohol poisoning can cause cardiac arrest, seizures, coma, and death.
If alcohol poisoning caused oxygen to be shut off to the brain due to seizure or coma, permanent or long-term brain damage might occur. Other extreme effects of alcohol poisoning, like a heart attack or hypothermia, can also have more severe and long-lasting results.
If an individual survives acute alcohol poisoning without any of these complications, the long-term effects will be less serious. They may still experience the following:
If alcohol poisoning is suspected, call 911 immediately for emergency medical care.
Before emergency care arrives, do the following:
In the hospital, doctors may monitor the individual with alcohol poisoning to ensure the alcohol is being metabolized properly and there’s no risk of cardiac issues, breathing problems, or seizures.
In extreme cases, the following treatments may be used:
The vast majority of people who drink too much are not dependent on alcohol, per a 2014 CDC report. While alcohol poisoning doesn’t necessarily indicate alcoholism or dependence, it certainly may be an indication of a developing or existing problem with drinking and intoxication.
Drinking to the level of alcohol poisoning demonstrates risk-taking behaviors associated with addiction, as well as other symptoms of addictive behavior, such as underlying mental issues like depression or trauma and the desire to escape through substances.
Severe and fatal alcohol poisoning remains a serious and prevalent issue in the U.S. While some see drinking in moderation as fun or social activity, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to acute alcohol poisoning that may result in seizure, coma, permanent brain damage, or even death.
If alcohol poisoning is suspected, emergency medical care should be sought immediately. A few moments can make all the difference in ensuring vital body and brain functions aren’t shut down.
(February 2019) The Alcohol Crisis in America has Been Overshadowed by Opioids, But Can No Longer Be Ignored. Forbes. from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/02/23/the-alcohol-crisis-in-america-has-been-overshadowed-by-opioids-but-can-no-longer-be-ignored/#5597ad0efd5d
(January 2015) 6 Americans Die Daily from Alcohol Poisoning. U.S. News & World Report. from https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/01/06/6-americans-die-every-day-from-alcohol-poisoning
(December 2017) What to Know About Alcohol Poisoning. Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/215627.php
(October 2018) Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcoholoverdosefactsheet/overdosefact.htm
(January 2015) Alcohol Poisoning Deaths. Vital Signs. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/alcohol-poisoning-deaths/index.html
(November 2017) Alcohol Overdose. Healthline. from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/overdose#prevention
(January 2015) Alcohol Poisoning Deaths Infographic. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/alcohol-poisoning-deaths/infographic.html
(June 2018) Alcohol Intoxication: What You Need to Know. Healthline. from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-intoxication