What Is Alcohol Poisoning And What Causes It?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when the body is unable to effectively process the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream, causing various organs and body systems to start shutting down. This condition is also referred to as alcohol overdose.

The rate at which your body processes alcohol is known as alcohol metabolism. This rate varies from person to person and is based on factors such as:

  • Genetics
  • Overall health
  • Amount of alcohol consumed

Enzymes within the body and the liver metabolize alcohol. Therefore, if a person consumes an excessive amount of alcohol within a short period, the liver is unable to keep up with the strain of metabolizing it. This overwhelms the body, and the resulting symptoms can be life-threatening.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a severe condition, and failure to seek immediate treatment can result in coma or death. However, recognizing the signs of alcohol poisoning can help you take immediate action.

Some signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Slow breathing
  • Decreased or slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting

  • Inability to wake up
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Mental stupor or confusion
  • Choking or loss of gag reflex
  • Extremely low body temperature that results in pale or blue skin

If you think someone is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, stop reading and call 911 immediately.

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, as the name suggests, is caused by an extreme excess of alcohol in your body’s bloodstream. As you consume alcohol, it enters the bloodstream, which causes your blood alcohol content (BAC) to rise. Normally, your liver begins to break down alcohol to help remove it from the body, as it is a toxin. However, with continued alcohol consumption, your liver begins to fall behind, and eventually is unable to keep up.

It is this excess of alcohol that leads to alcohol poisoning. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the body’s normal functions. The more alcohol present in the body, the more it affects these functions. As these functions continue to slow with the increasing presence of alcohol, alcohol poisoning eventually sets in.

When someone experiences alcohol poisoning, their body has experienced significant slowing of the body’s functions, including vital functions like breathing and consciousness. While the BAC level for each person is different, a BAC of .30% to .40% is likely alcohol poisoning; with levels over that being potentially fatal.

Risk Factors For Alcohol Poisoning

Certain behavioral and lifestyle factors can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning, including:

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a pattern of excessive and rapid alcohol consumption where the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .08% or higher. In men, this is the equivalent of five or more drinks on one occasion. For women, it is the equivalent of four or more drinks on one occasion. Binge drinking overwhelms the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol effectively.

High-Intensity Drinking

Like binge drinking, high-intensity drinking limits the body’s effectiveness at metabolizing alcohol. High-intensity drinking is considered another risk factor for alcohol poisoning and is characterized as consuming two or more times the binge-drinking amount for both women and men. In other words, the more alcohol you consume, the more at risk you are for alcohol poisoning.

Mixing Alcohol With Other Substances

Mixing alcohol with other substances, such as opioids and benzodiazepines, can also increase your risk for alcohol poisoning. These substances may exacerbate the effects of one another and can significantly disrupt the body’s ability to regulate temperature, heart rate, and breathing. If you are taking other medications or substances, it’s important to speak to your doctor about the risk of drinking alcohol while taking your medication.

Biological Factors

There are a few biological factors that can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning. Teens and young adults who drink alcohol are significantly more likely to experience alcohol poisoning or accidental alcohol overdose, as they’re more likely to engage in activities like binge drinking or high-intensity drinking. Additionally, men are more likely to experience alcohol poisoning, and account for roughly 75% of all alcohol-related deaths.

Emergency Action For Alcohol Poisoning

If you suspect someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose, you should call 911 immediately. Do not assume that the person has passed out and will wake up on their own eventually or that the person will sleep it off.

When you call 911, provide as much detailed information as you can. Be prepared to:

  • Tell the dispatcher and emergency responders about the person’s pattern of alcohol consumption, including type and amount.
  • Stay with the person, and do not try to induce vomiting as their gag reflex may be impaired. Trying to induce vomiting can lead to choking.
  • If the person is vomiting, make sure their head is turned to the side if they are lying down to prevent choking. Try to keep them sitting upright.
  • Try to keep the person conscious and awake.

How Is Alcohol Poisoning Diagnosed?

Due to the nature of the majority of alcohol poisonings, doctors typically diagnose cases based on known alcohol consumption or obvious signs such as slowed breathing, vomiting, or loss of consciousness. Because alcohol poisoning can be a serious medical emergency, hospitals will typically order several tests to check your overall health. These may include:

  • Blood alcohol content (BAC) test with a breathalyzer or blood test to detect the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream.
  • Electrolyte panel blood test which measures levels of the body’s main electrolytes: sodium, which helps control the amount of fluid in your body
  • Liver function tests to determine if there is any alcohol-related damage.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart.

Treating Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning must be treated by healthcare professionals in a hospital setting. At the hospital, clinicians will administer IV fluids and oxygen. They may utilize stomach pumping to clear the stomach of toxins. In severe cases where kidneys fail, dialysis may be started to support blood filtration.

Preventing Alcohol Poisoning

Prevention is another protective factor against alcohol poisoning. Fortunately, you can take action to reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning. This includes:

  • Not mixing alcohol with other substances.
  • Drinking slowly.
  • Alternating between an alcoholic drink and water.
  • Limiting your alcohol consumption to one standard drink per hour.
  • Listening to your body (your body processes alcohol more slowly when you feel fatigued or ill).
  • Avoiding drinks with high alcohol content.
  • Not participating in drinking games, as they tend to promote fast and excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Eating food before and during alcohol consumption.
  • Setting a limit on your alcohol consumption before you start drinking.

Having an awareness of your drinking patterns can help you reduce your risk of alcohol poisoning.

Get Help For Alcohol Addiction Today

Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous, life-threatening condition solely caused by alcohol misuse.

If alcohol misuse is a recurring problem for you, it may be time to contact a treatment provider. They can answer any rehab-related questions and discuss available treatment options to get you started on your journey towards a healthier, addiction-free future.