What is Alcohol Poisoning?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

January 3, 2023

Table of Contents

Alcohol poisoning, also known as alcohol overdose or acute alcohol intoxication, is a serious and potentially fatal consequence of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short timeframe. If you or a loved one has experienced alcohol poisoning on many occasions, they may need help from an alcohol rehab in California.

If you drink too much alcohol too quickly, this can impact your heart rate, breathing, gag reflex, and body temperature. In the worst scenario, alcohol poisoning can lead to a fatal coma. Every year, 2200 people die from alcohol poisoning in the United States, according to the CDC

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Additionally, alcohol overdose can occur when someone consumes household products containing alcohol, whether intentionally or accidentally.

An individual with alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical attention.

Understanding Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is the result of drinking too much alcohol too quickly, and binge drinking is one of the most common patterns of drinking leading to this outcome.

NIAAA (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) defines binge drinking as follows:

  • 4 standard drinks in 2 hours (women)
  • 5 standard drinking in 2 hours (men)

In the United States, a standard drink is a beverage containing 14g of alcohol. This equates to 12oz of beer (5% ABV), 5oz of wine (12% ABV), or 1.5oz of distilled spirits (40% ABV).

If you consume this much alcohol in such a short period, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) dramatically increases, placing undue stress on your liver.

Consuming enough alcohol at a quick enough rate will cause BAC levels to arrive at the point of toxicity. BAC levels will then continue to climb for around 40 minutes after the last alcoholic drink.

Now, binge drinking will not automatically trigger alcohol overdose, and not all instances of alcohol poisoning are caused by binge drinking, but there is nevertheless a clear correlation between unhealthy patterns of binge drinking and acute alcohol intoxication.

An image of a patient in a hospital being treated for Alcohol Poisoning

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Many variables influence how much alcohol will trigger alcohol poisoning in an individual, such as age, weight, gender, and tolerance for alcohol.

When considering BAC levels, 0.08% places you above the legal limit for driving in the United States.

If blood alcohol concentration hits 0.1%, the risk of serious side effects increases. The likelihood of experiencing alcohol poisoning rises exponentially the more alcohol you consume.

As a rough guideline, someone weighing 100 pounds could reach these BAC levels after just 3 standard drinks, while someone weighing 250 pounds might manage 7 standard drinks before BAC levels become dangerously high.

It can be challenging to differentiate between drunkenness and alcohol poisoning. Look out for any of the following symptoms which indicate the possibility of acute alcohol intoxication:

  • Incoherency
  • Loss of motor coordination
  • Abnormal breathing patterns
  • Confusion
  • Stupor
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Vomiting
  • Passing out

How to Tell if You Have Alcohol Poisoning

The presence of any of the above symptoms suggests that blood alcohol concentration is becoming dangerously high.

You don’t need to manifest all of the symptoms above before seeking medical help. If someone with alcohol poisoning loses consciousness, this can be life-threatening.

In addition to the common symptoms of alcohol poisoning above, there are some more serious symptoms that demand immediate action.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

The CDC reports the following symptoms of alcohol poisoning as being potentially deadly:

  • Inability to wake up
  • Blue skin
  • Hypothermia
  • Slow breathing
  • Irregular breathing
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting

You should seek immediate medical attention if any of the above symptoms present. Left unchecked, breathing can stop completely. Vomiting can cause you to choke on the vomit, especially if you lose consciousness.

Significantly lowered blood glucose levels can trigger dehydration, and possibly even seizures, prompting brain damage.

Alcohol Poisoning Recovery Timeline

There is no cure for alcohol poisoning beyond getting treated by a medical health professional. They can monitor your BAC level until it is below dangerous levels, intervening if required.

If you develop a serious case of alcohol poisoning, you may require a tube inserted into your windpipe to help you with breathing. A medical practitioner may also administer an intravenous drip to help raise blood sugar levels, manage hydration, and boost vitamin levels.

It is also quite common for those with alcohol poisoning to experience incontinence. This can be challenging to manage in a non-clinical setting. A urinary catheter may help to control this issue.

In some extreme cases of alcohol poisoning, it may be necessary for a doctor to pump the person’s stomach. Fluids can be sluiced through a tube placed down the mouth or nose.

It can take several hours to recover from alcohol poisoning. The alcohol poisoning recovery timeline will be extended if you suffer from any chronic damage or complications associated with alcohol abuse.

Those with existing kidney or liver problems may find that the timeline is protracted, potentially leading to permanent liver damage or brain damage.

The more alcohol you consume, the longer it will take to be eliminated from your bloodstream until BAC levels are normal (0.0). In most cases, blood alcohol levels are clear within eight hours of the last alcoholic drink. After this point, it may take another full day before symptoms subside and the system returns to homeostasis.

The ramifications of alcohol poisoning can last beyond the eight hours it takes to flush alcohol from the system, though. Much of the long-term damage triggered by alcohol overdose is related to the functionality and health of the organs. Chronic and recurrent binge drinking episodes can deoxygenate the brain and overwork the liver in a condition called hypoxia. This can depress areas of the brain that govern:

  • Gag reflex
  • Heartbeat
  • Breathing patterns
  • Body temperature

What Should I Do If I Have Alcohol Poisoning?

The first thing you should do is call 911 and summon immediate medical assistance. Any suspicion of acute alcohol intoxication should be treated as a potentially life-threatening medical emergency.

While you wait for the emergency responders to arrive, consider the following precautions:

  • Make sure the person remains upright
  • If you are unable to stop the person from laying down, move their head to one side
  • Try to keep the person awake
  • Never leave someone with alcohol intoxication unattended
  • If possible, encourage them to drink some water
  • Place the person in the recovery position if they lose consciousness
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Alcohol Poisoning Treatment at Renaissance Recovery

The treatment of alcohol poisoning typically involves supportive care as your body rids itself of alcohol. You will be carefully monitored with potential breathing and choking problems mitigated. With intravenous fluids preventing dehydration and vitamins and glucose to bolster your system, you will then be ready to consider engaging with addiction treatment.

For the treatment of alcohol intoxification and to detoxify from alcohol, we can connect you with supervised medical detox centers near you. FDA-approved medications will streamline the withdrawal process and help you to beat the physical side of alcohol addiction.

Here at Renaissance Recovery Center, we offer an array of outpatient programs for alcohol use disorder. If you have a more severe case of alcoholism, you may find an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or a partial hospitalization program (PHP) gives you more support and structure than a regular outpatient program (OP). We also provide virtual addiction treatment here at Renaissance.

All of our programs utilize evidence-based therapies, including medication-assisted treatment, psychotherapy, and counseling. You will also have access to a variety of holistic therapies.

If you’re serious about sober living, we can help you build the firmest foundation for ongoing recovery. To get started, call 866.330.9449 today.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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