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Alcohol Poisoning and Overdose

Alcohol is a commonly used substance in the United States. American adults drink 35 billion beverages containing alcohol each year.1 Nearly half of those beverages are consumed by a small number of adults who drink heavily or binge drink.1 Binge drinking is when large amounts of alcohol are consumed in a short period of time, generally at least 4 drinks for females and 5 drinks for males.1

While many people consume alcohol safely on a social basis, drinking too much can be dangerous. Heavy drinking, even in a single session, can lead to increased risk for health problems, violence, accidents, alcohol overdose, and death.1

If someone is showing signs of an alcohol overdose, it is important to call 9-1-1 to get them immediate medical attention.2 An overdose of alcohol can become fatal, especially if they are passed out.2

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is when too much alcohol is consumed, causing areas in the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature to stop working.2, 5 This may also be referred to as alcohol toxicity or an alcohol overdose.5 An overdose from drinking too much alcohol requires immediate medical attention, as it can become a life-threatening situation.2

When alcohol is consumed, it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine.6 The liver breaks down alcohol at a regular rate, but that rate often depends on many individual factors such as metabolism, age, and other medications. If alcohol is consumed faster than the liver can metabolize it, the rest of the alcohol continues to circulate through the body, causing symptoms of intoxication.6

The alcohol level in your bloodstream is known as your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). It can continue to rise even after you stop drinking and as your body continues to absorb alcohol through the digestive tract.2 A BAC that rises too high can be indicative of alcohol poisoning and can potentially be fatal.6

Statistics on alcohol overdose show that:

  • Binge drinking contributes to over 40% of alcohol-related deaths.1
  • Heavy alcohol use causes 20% of deaths in American adults between the ages of 20 and 40.1
  • Between 2015 and 2019, heavy alcohol use resulted in over 140,000 deaths yearly, or over 380 deaths each day.3
  • In 2020, there were 11,616 Americans aged 65 and older who died because of alcohol-related causes.4
  • Older Americans are increasingly dying from alcohol-related causes since 2011, and the rate increased by more than 18% between 2019 and 2020.4

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning can vary from person to person, and there are additional factors that can play a role in alcohol poisoning.2 Factors that can affect overdose include:

  • Binge drinking, which can significantly raise your BAC in a short period of time.2
  • Drinking alcohol while also taking opioids, benzodiazepines, or prescription sleep medications, which can make the effects stronger and potentially more likely to overdose.2
  • Whether you have eaten prior to drinking.
  • Gender.2
  • Age.2
  • Whether you have a tolerance to the effects of alcohol.2, 5 People with a high tolerance to alcohol may still be able to function at a BAC level that would cause life-threatening symptoms in someone who doesn’t have any tolerance.5

Higher BAC levels can cause more severe symptoms of alcohol poisoning, with levels of:5

  • 100% to 200% causing mild symptoms.
  • 200% to 400% causing more severe symptoms.
  • Above 400% causing life-threatening symptoms.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include:

  • Breathing that is very slow, shallow, or not regular.2
  • Confusion.2
  • A heart rate that is very slow.2
  • Inability to wake the person up.2
  • Lack of response to stimuli.2
  • Loss of consciousness.2
  • Seizures.2
  • Skin that is blue, clammy, and/or pale.2
  • Very low body temperature.2, 5
  • Vomiting or choking, especially while asleep or unconscious.2

Dangers of Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol’s effects on the body are often associated with long-term use but consuming too much alcohol at one time can also have harmful effects on your health. An alcohol overdose can place you in dangerous situations or lead to persistent, adverse health issues that may even be fatal.2 In particular, impaired judgment from heavy drinking can put you at higher risk of having unprotected sex and contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).8

People who survive an alcohol overdose may experience several health issues, including:

  • Heart problems like abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, or stroke.5
  • Irreversible brain damage.2
  • Liver damage.5, 8
  • Memory loss (blackouts).2

Prevention and Help for Alcohol Poisoning

The most effective way to prevent alcohol overdose is prevention. If you choose to drink, you may be able to prevent alcohol poisoning by following these tips:6

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Eating foods that take a long time to digest, such as those that are high in protein and fat will slow down the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream.
  • Drink slowly. The liver can only metabolize a certain amount over a specified time, so drinking more than that will increase your level of intoxication and can raise the risk of an overdose.
  • Monitor how much alcohol you are drinking. Drinking several drinks, especially if you drink them quickly, can make you more likely to overdose.
  • Be aware of how you feel before you start drinking. If you are tired or stressed out, you are more likely to feel the effects more strongly than if you are well-rested and calm.
  • Avoid carbonated or sweet drinks. Carbonation and sugary mixers can cause your body to absorb alcohol faster than usual, so you will feel the effects more quickly than you would with other types of alcohol.
  • Don’t mix alcohol with certain types of medications or drugs. If you are using or misusing opioids, benzodiazepines, or sleep medications, alcohol can interact with these medications, and you may feel the effects of both substances more strongly. In addition, you are more likely to experience an overdose of either substance.

If you think that someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose, call 9-1-1 right away.2 Alcohol poisoning can be fatal, and medical attention is required as soon as possible.2 Since you can continue absorbing alcohol even after you stop drinking, early treatment for alcohol overdose can make a difference.2 Once you have called for help, there are some other steps you can take:2

  • Stay with the person, and make sure they are sitting upright on the ground if they are conscious.
  • If they are unconscious, lay them down and prop them so they can’t roll flat to prevent them from choking if they vomit.
  • After medical personnel arrives, let them know what they drank and how much of it, if they took any other drugs or medications, or if they have any physical or mental illnesses, or allergies.

Treatment After an Alcohol Overdose

Treatment for an alcohol overdose may be followed by treatment for alcohol addiction. This can include a range of treatment settings and methods designed to meet your needs, including:

  • Supervised detox, where staff can monitor your condition and provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, which can become life-threatening.7
  • Inpatient treatment, where you stay at a facility for several weeks and staff is available around the clock for monitoring and support as you receive intensive group and individual counseling.7
  • Outpatient treatment, where you attend scheduled group and individual counseling sessions at varying levels of intensity depending on your needs, but do not live in the facility.7
  • Recovery aftercare, where you continue to receive supportive services to help maintain abstinence after completing treatment, such as attending alumni meetings or support group meetings, private counseling, recovery housing, or step-down care into a less intensive treatment setting.

You don’t have to take the first steps toward quitting drinking alone. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has a 24/7 helpline where you can connect with a caring admissions navigator who can answer questions about treatment, help you find the right facility, and check your insurance coverage. Call to get started on the path to recovery today.

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