Alcohol Poisoning: Effects, Treatment, and Prevention

If you binge drink, you are at high risk for alcohol poisoning because you are consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period. Binge drinking is defined as four or more standard drinks on one occasion for women and five or more standard drinks on one occasion for men.1 What constitutes a “standard drink” is as follows:

  • 12 ounces (oz) of beer or wine cooler
  • 8 oz of malt liquor
  • 4-5 oz of wine (a full glass of wine is 2 or more standard drinks)
  • A 1.5 oz shot of hard liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)

Even if you only binge drink on weekends or feel that binge drinking hasn’t hurt your life in general, it is still harmful to your body, both in the short and long-term.

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

The various alcohol intoxication levels are based on blood alcohol content (BAC), or how much alcohol is in the blood. BAC numbers are the actual percentages of alcohol in the bloodstream. For example, a BAC of .02 means that .02 of 1% of the blood consists of alcohol.

A very low level of intoxication (BAC of .02-.04) usually comes with feelings of relaxation, but there is very little impairment to functioning. When you feel the initial “buzz” while drinking (BAC of .04-.06), that is where your thought processes start to become impaired. You may have heard people distinguishing between being buzzed and being drunk, but they are, in fact, the same.

Thought processes can become impaired when your BAC is lower than the legal limit, which is .08 in most states. Thus, for example, if you drive while buzzed (BAC of .04-.06), you are putting yourself and others at significant risk even though you may be under the legal limit for alcohol intoxication.

Intoxication at high levels is alcohol poisoning (essentially alcohol overdose). There are three stages of alcohol poisoning:

  • Stage 1: Vomiting (BAC .11-.15)
  • Stage 2: Blacking out (BAC .17-.30)
  • Stage 3: Coma or death (BAC .31 and higher)

You may be surprised to see that vomiting falls in the realm of alcohol poisoning because it can seem fairly common, particularly among young adults. However, vomiting means that your body is rejecting the alcohol because it has reached high toxic levels.

Blacking out is when you forget what happened while you were drinking. You may have heard the term “brownout,” something many college students use to mean that they forget only parts of the night they were drinking. However, this also is a blackout because brain functioning had to shut down during the periods that you cannot recall. In other words, “brownouts” and blackouts are the same.

If you or someone you know is suffering from alcoholism, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to find rehab options.

Effects of Alcohol Poisoning

Some signs exhibited by someone experiencing alcohol poisoning are:

  • Confusion
  • Pale or blue-tinged skin
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Passing out and can’t be aroused6

You may have found that it is easier to fall asleep after drinking. However, with excessive drinking, you probably were not getting quality sleep because your body was still working to process the alcohol, and you were still experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

Hangovers

A “hangover” is another short-term effect of binge drinking, something you may have also experienced after a night of heavy drinking. A hangover is a set of symptoms that often includes headache, fatigue, thirst, nausea, stomach pain, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Some causes for hangovers include:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Dehydration (since heavy drinking increases urination, leading to excess loss of fluids)
  • Inflammation
  • Gastrointestinal irritation (alcohol leads to an increase in acid release in the stomach)

Hangover symptoms peak when your BAC is back down to zero and the symptoms can last 24 hours or longer, which is why you feel hungover the day after drinking.2 The order of different types of drinks you consume (e.g., first beer, then liquor) does not affect a hangover; generally, the more alcohol you drink, the worse the hangover will be.

Because the body can process only one standard drink per hour, it’s possible that you could be intoxicated on your way to work after a night of binge drinking. For example, if you had 10 standard drinks the night before and you stopped drinking at 2 a.m., it won’t be until about noon the next day that your BAC will be back to 0. In fact, in one study (done in the UK), 42% of participants reported going to work hungover or under the influence of alcohol.3

Some common myths related to heavy drinking include:

  • Coffee, other forms of caffeine, or stimulants—prescription or otherwise—will reverse the effects of alcohol
  • Exercise will increase the speed at which alcohol leaves your body
  • The order of drinks affects a hangover (i.e., “beer before liquor, never sicker”)
  • Eating bread after drinking will absorb the alcohol and reduce the effects of alcohol on your body

The only thing that can lead to a reduction in BAC is time. Eating after drinking does not help to reduce your BAC. Your digestive system is one big tube, and what goes in first will be processed first. If you drink before eating, the alcohol will go through your system first and more quickly because it is a liquid. If you eat before drinking, since the food takes longer to be absorbed, the alcohol will get mixed in with the food, which will lower your BAC.

Long-Term Effects

Some long-term problems associated with regular binge drinking include:

  • Lower brain function, such as problems with memory, impulse control, and problem-solving
  • High blood pressure4
  • Increased risk for stroke4
  • Increased risk for artery disease, heart failure, and diabetes5
  • College students having an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in post-college years

Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

If someone you know is experiencing alcohol poisoning, they need medical attention right away. Follow these steps:

  1. Call 911.
  2. Stay with the person while waiting for help to arrive. If they are vomiting, position them on their side so they don’t choke on the vomit. Keep the person warm by covering them with a blanket or sweater.
  3. Be prepared to report to personnel what drinks, how many, and over what period the person consumed.

Do not:

  • Let the person just “sleep it off” as their BAC can continue to rise to dangerous levels and they could die.
  • Give the person a cold shower—the shock of cold could cause them to lose consciousness.

When at the hospital emergency room (ER), the doctor may order blood and urine tests to check the blood alcohol levels and identify any other signs of alcohol poisoning.6

Stomach Pumping

A common treatment of alcohol poisoning in the ER is pumping out the stomach to remove any remaining alcohol to keep it from being absorbed in the body. This is done by inserting a long tube into the mouth and down the esophagus.

Other Treatments

Medical professionals may also:

  • Deliver a flow of oxygen via a small nose piece or mask (since heavy alcohol use slows respiration)
  • Give fluids through a vein (to prevent dehydration)
  • Give vitamins and glucose

The vitamins and glucose help prevent serious complications as a result of alcohol poisoning; since the body uses a lot of energy to process the alcohol, it can inhibit the absorption of nutrients in the body.

Safer Drinking Practices

If you do choose to drink, here are some ways to help avoid alcohol poisoning and lower the risks to your health and safety:

  • Pace yourself: the body can process about one standard drink per hour, so plan accordingly.
  • Alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Eat before drinking. Eating after you drink won’t help to lower your BAC.
  • Always have a designated driver.
  • Drink for quality, not quantity (savor a glass of wine).
  • Avoid shots and drinking games as they can lead to binge drinking.
  • Only consume drinks poured by yourself or a bartender.
  • Never leave your drink unattended.
  • Always keep some drink in your glass to help avoid others from refilling it or pressuring you to drink more.
  • Do not combine alcohol with other substances, including over-the-counter medicines, that may amplify the sedative effect of alcohol.

If you are concerned about your level of alcohol use or that of a loved one, please call 800-839-1686Who Answers? for 24/7 help.

References

  1. Kanny, D., Naimi, T.S., Liu, Y., Lu, H., & Brewer, R.D. (2016). Annual total binge drinks consumed by U.S. adults, 2015. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 54(4), 486-496.
  2. National Insitute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Hangovers.
  3. Bhattacharya, A. (2019). Financial headache: The cost of workplace hangovers and intoxication to the UK economy.
  4. O’Keefe, J.H., Bhatti, S.K., Bajwa, A., DiNicolantonio, J.J., & Lavie, C.J. (2014). Alcohol and cardiovascular health: The dose makes the poison…or the remedy. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 89(3), 382-393.
  5. Fernandez-Sola, J. (2015). Cardiovascular risks and benefits of moderate and heavy alcohol consumption. Nature Reviews Cardiology (12), 576-587.
  6. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms and Causes.

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