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Understanding Alcohol Overdose

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning, is a serious consequence of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short space of time.

 When you drink too much alcohol too quickly, this can impact your heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. Coma and death are the most serious outcomes of alcohol overdose.

 Sometimes, alcohol poisoning occurs as a result of someone accidentally consuming household products containing alcohol.

 If you or a loved one experiences an alcohol overdose, it’s vital to summon immediate medical assistance.

Can You Overdose on Alcohol

It is possible to overdose on alcohol. This occurs when there is so much alcohol in your bloodstream that it starts affecting the areas of your brain responsible for essential life-support functions like temperature regulation, heart rate, and breathing.

 Binge drinking is one of the most common causes of alcohol overdose. If a male drinks more than five alcoholic drinks within a two-hour period, or if a woman drinks more than four drinks in that same time period, this is classified as binge drinking.

 What signs should you be on the lookout for to spot a case of alcohol poisoning, then?

Key Signs of Alcohol Overdose

Keep an eye out for the common red flags for alcohol overdose:

  • Mental disorientation
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dulled responses
  • Extremely low body temperature

Mental disorientation

This symptom makes the user confused cognitively. They may not recognize common people or places and not be able to function normally. This is different from being drunk and stumbling around.

Difficulty remaining conscious

When alcohol overdose is occurring, a person may struggle to remain conscious. They may nod off or fall over trying to keep alert. Any time someone passes out from drinking, it’s a cause for concern.

Vomiting

This can occur with or without an alcohol overdose. Some people vomit when they are very drunk, but the difference is that they will have other symptoms accompanying this. Vomiting can be quite dangerous because sometimes it leads to dehydration.

Seizures

When the blood sugar levels dip extremely low, a seizure may occur. Seizures are an uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain that can cause a person to lose all ability to stay standing or keep conscious.

Difficulty breathing

This may happen when the heart rate slows down, which it will when drinking an excessive amount. If the breathing is at eight breaths a minute or less, it’s critical to call 911.

Dulled responses

Dulled responses can manifest in various ways, such as preventing or inhibiting the gag reflex. The gag reflex is necessary to prevent choking. So, choking is a high risk if a person is vomiting and doesn’t have their gag reflex working properly.

Extremely low body temperature

When the body temperature drops extremely low, it’s because it’s trying to handle all the alcohol that has suddenly flooded the system. The other dire concern is that low body temperature may lead to cardiac arrest.

Alcohol Overdose Symptoms

There are many variables that affect how much impairment increases in line with BAC (blood alcohol concentration). These include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Size and weight
  • Tolerance to alcohol
  • Pace of drinking
  • Whether or not you have eaten recently
  • Any medications you are taking
  • Overall health

The following signs indicate a critical alcohol overdose:

  • Very low body temperature
  • Pale blue tinge to skin
  • Clammy skin
  • No gag reflex (this can lead to choking)
  • Mental confusion
  • Stupor
  • Problems remaining conscious
  • Seizures
  • Fewer than eight breaths per minute
  • Irregular breathing spaced more than 10 seconds apart
  • Slow heart rate

NIAAA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) breaks down the effects of alcohol overdose from mild impairment through to life-threatening alcohol overdose as follows:

  • Mild impairment
  • Increased impairment
  • Severe impairment
  • Life-threatening

Mild impairment: BAC level: 0.0% to 0.05%

  • Speech
  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Coordination
  • Relaxation
  • Sleepiness

Increased impairment: BAC level: 0.06% to 0.15%

  • Relaxation giving way to intoxication
  • Aggression
  • Speech
  • Memory
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Driving skills
  • Risk of injury

Severe impairment: BAC level: 0.16% to 0.30%

  • Significant impairments to speech and balance
  • Driving skills dangerously impaired
  • Judgment
  • Decision-making
  • Vomiting
  • Blackouts
  • Losing consciousness

Life-threatening: BAC level: 0.31% to 0.45%

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Suppression of vital functions
  • Significant risk of death

Treatment for an Alcohol OD

Familiarizing yourself with the above warning signs of alcohol overdose will help you act quickly if you or a loved one find yourself with alcohol poisoning.
 
Call 911 immediately rather than waiting for all the above symptoms to manifest.
 
Refrain from administering coffee or cold showers. This is not the time to play doctor, and these strategies will not reverse the effects of alcohol overdose. You could even make things worse by intervening like this.
 
Wait for medical assistance and have the following information ready for the emergency responders:
 

  • The type and amount of alcohol consumed
  • Any other substances consumed
  • Medications taken
  • Allergies to medication
  • Any relevant medical history

Never leave an intoxicated individual alone as there is a risk of choking. Try to keep the person either sitting on the ground or partially upright rather than sitting in a chair.

Intervene if the person starts vomiting to prevent choking. Lean them forward if they are sitting. If unconscious or laying down, roll them onto one side.

During the recovery period from alcohol overdose, you could experience:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Tremors

Renaissance Recovery’s Alcoholism Treatment

If you are struggling with alcohol use disorder, it pays to engage with treatment before you end up with alcohol poisoning. When you’re ready to commit to recovery, we’re here to help at Renaissance. 

In most cases of alcohol use disorder, outpatient treatment is highly effective. As long as your AUD is not too severe, and as long as you have a supportive home environment, our intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs are designed to help you detox and remain alcohol-free. 

Our treatment programs deliver an integrated approach of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and psychotherapy. With MAT, you can take advantage of FDA-approved medications to ease the intensity of withdrawal symptoms while minimizing cravings. 

MAT is always most effective when it’s delivered in tandem with CBT, DBT, or similar talk therapies. These sessions will help you identify your triggers for alcohol abuse so you can better avoid them. You’ll also develop healthier coping strategies to reduce the chance of relapse. 

To get things started, reach out to the friendly Renaissance admissions team at 866.330.9449.

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

Paige R

“Renaissance Recovery truly changed my life.”

Courtney S

” I’m grateful for my experience at Renaissance, the staff are very experienced, they gave me the hope I needed in early sobriety, and a variety of coping mechanisms that I can use on a daily basis.”

Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country