Substance Use

Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, & Prevention

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Everyone knows the effects of alcohol can be serious. But what exactly is alcohol poisoning? How to treat it? What are the symptoms? Is it fatal? 

Although alcohol consumption is a socially acceptable practice and is safe in moderation, excessive drinking can lead to poisoning and death.

Who is most at risk of alcohol-related poisoning deaths, and how is alcohol poisoning treated? The following article will explain the effects of alcohol poisoning and effective treatment methods.

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What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, also referred to as alcohol intoxication, is a clinically harmful condition that typically arises from the consumption of a significant quantity of alcohol. (1) Acute alcohol intoxication, as described by Vonghia et al, manifests as a serious health concern. (2)

It’s important to note the distinction between alcohol overdose and alcohol poisoning, terms often used interchangeably.

Sure, these terms, alcohol overdose and alcohol poisoning, are often used interchangeably, but they are two different things. (3)

  • Alcohol overdose refers to binge drinking or drinking too much alcohol in a short period. (4)
  • Alcohol poisoning refers to the dangerous side effects that can occur as a result of consuming large amounts of alcohol.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) advises that alcohol overdose and alcohol poisoning can lead to serious health problems. (4) These include permanent brain damage and death.

Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

After consuming up to 10 to 12 units of alcohol in a single sitting, coordination becomes extremely impaired. (5) People who reach this level of drunkenness risk falling, hitting their head, or otherwise injuring themselves.

Staggering, slurred speech, and issues with balance, coordination, and sight occur. As a person’s BAC (blood alcohol concentration) reaches toxic levels, more severe symptoms manifest. (6)

Dehydration and digestive upset can happen. After 12 units are consumed, automatic body functions are suppressed and impaired, including:

  • Respiratory rate
  • Heart rate
  • Gag reflex

A person at this stage can choke on their own vomit and asphyxiate. Also, people at this stage of alcohol consumption can lose consciousness and die.

Symptoms of an alcohol poisoning event may include: (7)

  • Confusion
  • Passing out or having difficulty remaining conscious
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing or gaps in breathing,
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Dulled responses (such as no gag reflex)
  • Extremely low body temperature
  • Stupor
  • Unconsciousness
  • Low body temperature
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed respiration
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Blue tinge to the skin

Alcohol is a depressant that can cause irregular breathing, asphyxiation, and loss of consciousness. If you think someone may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, it’s crucial to seek medical help immediately. (4)

Alcohol poisoning typically lasts for several hours as it can take several hours for a person’s body to flush the toxins from their bloodstream. If complications arise from the alcohol poisoning such as seizures then the person can suffer brain damage and fall into a coma that can last several weeks to months. (4) (8)

Alcohol poisoning might not last long for some and can lead to a sudden death, which is why medical advice as soon as possible is imperative.

The Causes and Risk Factors

Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream.

This can happen if someone drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time or if they drink a smaller amount of alcohol but have a low tolerance.

When there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream, it begins to shut down areas of the brain that control essential life-support functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control.

At its core, the body treats alcohol as a toxin. As soon as a person starts to drink, the body attempts to process the alcohol and quickly eliminate it.

If someone drinks in excess, the body cannot quickly cleanse itself of the toxin, and an individual can die from acute alcohol poisoning.

First Aid and Immediate Treatment Steps

If someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, they will need to be taken to a hospital for urgent medical care. If you are concerned that someone has had too much to drink, it’s essential to monitor them for more severe signs of alcohol poisoning for at least 40 minutes after they’ve had their final drink.

Alcohol continues to increase in the bloodstream for up to 40 minutes after the last drink.

Do not leave them alone or allow them to “sleep it off.” Home remedies such as cold showers, drinking coffee, or drinking more alcohol will not help someone who has reached this level of poisoning. (9)

These things can make alcohol poisoning worse.

Step 1 – Call 911

The first step in treating alcohol poisoning is to call 911, especially for a person who is passing out and experiencing loss of consciousness

Don’t wait to see if they “sleep it off.” Call for emergency medical attention immediately when blood alcohol levels are high.

Step 2 – Check The Person is Breathing

The second step is ensuring that the person is breathing and has a clear airway.

If the person is not breathing, you’ll need to perform CPR. (10) Once the person is slow breathing or even irregular breathing, you will need to roll them onto their side into the recovery position and they will need to be monitored closely.

Step 3 – Keep The Person Warm and Comfortable

The third step is to keep them warm and comfortable. You should also give them sips of water if they’re awake and able to drink.

Step 4 – Hospital Care

Once at the hospital, doctors will provide supportive care, which may include administering IV fluids and oxygen, monitoring vital signs, and treating any underlying medical conditions. In some cases, patients may need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe.

With prompt medical treatment, most people who experience alcohol poisoning and added health conditions can make a full recovery.

Medical Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

After seeking immediate professional help, it’s important to continue with medical treatment from healthcare providers. This will ensure the best possible outcome.

Here’s an overview of the medical treatment involved in addressing alcohol poisoning:

  1. Emergency Services: The first step in treating alcohol poisoning is to call emergency services or your local poison control center for medical help. This initiates the process of getting timely and expert assistance.
  2. Assessment and Monitoring: Upon arrival, healthcare professionals will assess the individual’s condition. This involves checking vital signs such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Continuous monitoring is crucial to gauge the severity of alcohol poisoning and to address any complications promptly.
  3. Stabilization: Medical personnel may work to stabilize the individual, which may include administering intravenous fluids to address dehydration and maintain electrolyte balance. Oxygen therapy may also be provided to support breathing.
  4. Preventing Choking: Individuals with alcohol poisoning are at an increased risk of choking on their own vomit. Medical professionals may position the person on their side to prevent aspiration and ensure a clear airway.
  5. Medication Administration: In certain cases, medications may be administered to manage symptoms. Benzodiazepines may be used to control seizures, and other drugs might be employed to counteract specific effects of alcohol toxicity. (11)
  6. Hospitalization: Depending on the severity of the case, hospitalization may be necessary for continued monitoring and treatment. Inpatient care allows healthcare providers to address complications and provide comprehensive support during the recovery process.
  7. Psychosocial Support: Beyond the immediate medical interventions, addressing the underlying factors contributing to excessive alcohol consumption is essential. Mental health professionals may be involved to provide psychosocial support and offer resources for ongoing treatment, such as counseling or rehabilitation programs.

Complications and Long-Term Effects

A person can experience severe complications as a result of alcohol poisoning, which may include:

  • Choking – Alcohol poisoning can cause depression in a person’s gag reflex, which increases the risk of choking on their vomit if they are passed out which is also known as foreign body airway obstruction (FBAO).
  • Stopping Breathing – Alcohol poisoning can lead to asphyxiation when a person accidentally inhales their own vomit into their lungs, causing a dangerous or fatal interruption of their breathing.
  • Severe Dehydration – Alcohol poisoning can result in severe dehydration from a person vomiting so much.
  • Seizures – Alcohol poisoning can result in hypoglycemia, which is a dangerous drop in a person’s blood sugar levels to levels that can cause seizures.
  • Hypothermia – Alcohol poisoning can result in a person developing hypothermia, which can lead to cardiac arrest.
  • Irregular Heartbeat – Alcohol poisoning can cause the heart to beat irregularly or even stop.
  • Brain damage – Alcohol poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage.
  • Death – Alcohol poisoning can cause a person to die.

How to Prevent Alcohol Overdose

There are a few things that can help to prevent alcohol poisoning.

  1. First, it is essential to pace yourself if you’re drinking alcohol. This means not drinking too much too quickly.
  2. Eating food while drinking is also important, as this will help slow down the absorption of alcohol into your system. (12)
  3. Finally, make sure to stay hydrated by drinking water in between alcoholic drinks.

Moderation is key for enjoying social events and avoiding the risk of alcohol poisoning, injury, and death. Following these tips can help prevent you or someone else from suffering from alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol Use Disorder: Getting Help and Support

Alcohol poisoning is a serious, dangerous condition. A person suspected of having alcohol poisoning must receive swift medical attention.

Never leave a vulnerable person alone; continually monitor them while waiting for an ambulance.

If you think you or a loved one might be at risk of consuming too much alcohol and have a problem with their alcohol intake, then you might need guided help and medical advice.

Worried About Your Alcohol Consumption? Get in Touch Today

Alcohol poisoning is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when an individual consumes a dangerous amount of alcohol in a short period. Recognizing the symptoms, understanding the causes, and knowing the appropriate treatment and prevention measures are crucial for addressing this medical emergency.

Zinnia Health’s admissions counselors are standing by to help those suffering from alcohol use disorders or binge drinking. Contact our drug abuse hotline at (855) 430-9439 today.


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