Alcohol Poisoning

Part of the Complete Guide to Understanding Addiction

Table of Contents
  1. What is alcohol poisoning?
  2. What causes alcohol poisoning?
  3. A standard drink
  4. What are common symptoms?
  5. CUPS
  6. Side Effects
  7. Alcohol poisoning risk factors
  8. Treatment measures
  9. Bottom line

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Acute alcohol poisoning or intoxication is a serious, life-threatening condition. It results from drinking too much alcohol in a short period of time. Because alcohol is absorbed quickly by the body, as opposed to other nutrients, toxic levels can be reached quickly.

While social drinking is common, alcohol poisoning occurs most often after obvious impairments are present. Becoming intoxicated quickly to the point of loss of motor coordination, impulse control, and decision-making are all red flags. Alcohol poisoning may be next for those that continue drinking beyond this point. Sometimes, large quantities of alcohol are consumed at such a rapid pace that basic impairments barely have a chance to occur before toxic levels are reached.

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The amount of alcohol consumption that leads to alcohol poisoning varies from person to person, though there are recommended limits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends limiting alcohol consumption to 1 drink or less a day for women and 2 drinks a day or less for men. This is considered moderate alcohol consumption; the ideal is obviously to abstain completely.

What causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is strongly associated with most cases of acute alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as, “drinking amounts of alcohol that brings blood concentration levels (BAC) to 0.08 percent or higher.” This often corresponds to having 4 or more drinks within 2 hours for females, and 5 or more drinks within 2 hours for males.

Physiological Causes

Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is such a high level of alcohol in the blood that crucial areas of the brain, which control basic life-supporting functions, shut down. This includes breathing, heart rate, and temperature control. Essentially, the individual has consumed such a large quantity of alcohol that their body becomes overwhelmed by alcohol to a life-threatening extent. Those who are fortunate enough to live through alcohol poisoning are still at risk of permanent brain damage as a result.

Preventative Measures

Rather than focusing on alcohol poisoning treatment, it is best to understand its seriousness, causes, and preventative measures. Following standard drink recommendations and/ or abstaining from alcohol completely is the best way to prevent alcohol poisoning. Women are recommended not to have more than 1 standard drink per day, and men no more than 2 per day. Less than that is certainly better. Part of drinking responsibly is keeping track of the amount of alcohol you have consume; mindlessly drinking alcohol is dangerous and can easily lead to intoxication and alcohol poisoning. 

What is a Standard Drink?

                A standard drink of alcohol is defined as:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

Data and Statistics

Not all alcohol poisoning results in death, but it is a very real potential effect. The CDC reports that as many as 6 people die from alcohol poisoning in the U.S each day. As vital systems begin shutting down due to alcohol poisoning, symptoms will begin to present themselves. Alcohol poisoning symptoms are serious and should be addressed immediately by emergency medical personnel.

Alcohol poisoning symptoms include:

  • Loss of or difficulty maintaining consciousness
  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Loss of gag reflex (can lead to choking)
  • Clammy skin
  • Low body temperature

It is not uncommon for those who drink regularly to want to know and be aware of what alcohol poisoning feels like. However, symptoms of alcohol poisoning should not be used as an indicator to stop drinking. Once a state of alcohol poisoning has been reached, the alcohol consumption should have stopped several drinks prior. It is best to be aware of how much alcohol is being consumed, and to do so slowly, moderately, and responsibly.


A mnemonic device has been developed to identify signs of alcohol poisoning.

  • Cold or clammy skin that may also be bluish or pale
  • Unconsciousness
  • Puking uncontrollable and / or frequently
  • Slow or shallow breathing

Side Effects

A positive alcohol poisoning diagnosis is reached by checking vital signs and symptoms, along with a blood and urine test to check alcohol levels. These results combined with low blood sugar and other alcohol toxicity symptoms result in a diagnosis and intervention.

Another common question concerns the timeframe of alcohol poisoning. How long does alcohol poisoning last? Alcohol poisoning technically lasts until BAC levels are back within safe range, typically when all the alcohol is out of the blood. This can take hours or days, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed. However, the side effects of alcohol poisoning can last far longer – even a lifetime.

Alcohol Poisoning Risk Factors

While anyone can experience acute alcohol poisoning, there are certain ages, genders, professions, and other characteristics that make some more at risk than others. Factors that increase a person’s likelihood of alcohol poisoning include their body weight, whether or not they have eaten recently, the amount of alcohol in their drinks of choice, their individual tolerance level, and whether they are combining alcohol with other drugs.

In the United States alone, 76% of deaths from alcohol poisoning were among ages 35 to 64 years old. Of those ages, 76% were men. The rates of binge drinking among teens has also risen in recent years, to nearly 5% in ages 12 to 17 years old. 27% to 33% of young adults (ages 18 to 22) were reported as binge drinking, depending on college enrollment.


Anyone who suspects alcohol poisoning should call for medical help immediately. While waiting, it is important to keep victims in an upright position. If they are able to drink safely, give them water. Be sure to keep them warm and never leave them alone. Those who have become unconscious should be laid on their side in a recovery position to prevent them from choking in the event of vomiting. If unconscious, it is also important to frequently monitor their breathing and heart rate.

It is vitally important to never just leave a person alone to sleep it off. Alcohol blood levels continue to rise for 30 minutes to an hour after their last drink, and symptoms can become severe quickly. Other common misconceptions and dangerous home remedies include drinking coffee or caffeine, taking a cold shower (which can cause loss of consciousness), or walking it off. All of these are ineffective and/ or dangerous.   

If medical intervention is sought, acute alcohol poisoning may be treated via a few methods. The individual may be intubated in order to open airways and aid breathing. They will receive an intravenous drip which provides water for hydration, and other vitamins or minerals to stabilize blood sugar levels and nutrient deficiencies. The patient may also need to be fitted with a catheter to prevent urinating on themselves as the alcohol leaves their body and fluids are replenished. Once the patient is stable, the medical staff will then assess any further needs that may have resulted from alcohol poisoning. This may include tests such as brain scans. The hospital staff will also address any injuries that may have occurred as a result of intoxication. 

Bottom Line

Alcohol poisoning is serious and occurs more frequently than many assume. It does not just happen to those who imbibe alcohol regularly, as is possible to reach toxic blood alcohol levels the first time one consumes alcohol. Drinking responsibly requires attention to the amount and type of alcohol you are consuming and keeping others accountable for their own safety as well. If you suspect that someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call for medical help and do not leave them alone.
Learn more about identifying alcoholic smell and other warning signs of alcoholism on our website.

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