What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when the body has consumed more alcohol in a short time than it can process. The toxic effects of alcohol overwhelm the body and lead to severe impairment, increasingly dangerous medical effects, and — if untreated — potentially death. Alcohol poisoning can happen to people of any age, gender, weight, or alcohol tolerance. Because alcohol poisoning is caused by drinking too much too fast, binge drinking (typically defined as 5 drinks for a man in one sitting or 4 for a woman) is especially dangerous. Alcohol poisoning is a major problem, with over 2,000 Americans dying every year as a result — an average of 6 a day.

The risk of alcohol poisoning is generally measured by a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC). BAC measures the percentage of how much alcohol is in the bloodstream. BAC is expressed as the weight of ethanol (drinking alcohol) in grams per 100 milliliters of blood or 210 liters of breath. BAC can be determined from breath, blood, and urine tests. Because such factors as age, weight, gender, metabolism, and alcohol tolerance influence how quickly the body processes alcohol and the amount of alcohol it can tolerate, 2 people who have consumed the same amount of alcohol may have substantially different BACs. This also makes one’s BAC a much better measure of intoxication than the amount of alcohol consumed, as it more accurately represents actual impairment. In most states, the legal limit for intoxication is a BAC of 0.08.

Alcohol poisoning is incredibly serious and fast-acting. An individual can go from not having any drinks to entering a life-threatening situation in a matter of hours, possibly even less. If you are concerned that you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol poisoning, seek immediate medical attention.

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How Does Alcohol Poisoning Develop?

The body metabolizes, or breaks down, alcohol primarily in the liver. However, the body can only process alcohol so quickly. While everyone is slightly different, as a general rule, the body can process 1 ounce of alcohol every hour. That is roughly how much alcohol is in 1 shot, 1 beer, or 1 glass of wine.

If an individual consumes more alcohol before the body has had a chance to break down the amount already consumed, that alcohol remains in their bloodstream and increases their BAC. The more alcohol consumed, the higher the BAC rises. This is especially true when alcohol is consumed quickly. As the level of alcohol in the bloodstream rises, the destructive impact that alcohol has on the many body systems it encounters increases. The level of impairment rises with each additional drink.

Impairment generally begins with mild feelings of warmth and euphoria. Gradually, inhibitions are lowered and moods become more pronounced. Vision, speech, reaction time, decision making, hearing, memory, balance, and more become increasingly impaired. Eventually, all are so impaired that the individual is essentially incapable of functioning. Even walking a few steps becomes impossible. The individual will become what is commonly known as a “sloppy drunk.” At some point the body will no longer be capable of handling the alcohol, and it will attempt to purge itself of the toxic chemical. Nausea begins, followed by vomiting. The next stage is generally a “blackout.” This is when a person is no longer aware of what they are doing, loses all control, and will probably not remember anything the next day.

There comes a point when the body cannot handle the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. In most cases, the person will lose consciousness and pass out. Their body is still processing the alcohol, however, so they may continue to vomit. If a person vomits while unconscious, it may fill up and block their air passages; this may cause them to choke to death. If a person consumes so much alcohol that it overwhelms their body, the body may begin to shut down. The individual may go into a coma, begin to experience permanent brain damage, and potentially die of numerous conditions — in particular, cardiac arrest and dehydration.

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Symptoms Of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Confusion or stupor
  • Coma
  • Unresponsiveness or incoherence
  • Vomiting, often uncontrollably, especially if while unconscious
  • Seizures
  • Irregular or slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute or 10 seconds or more in between breaths)
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Pale or bluish skin color

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How To Treat Alcohol Poisoning

The most important thing you can do for someone who may be suffering from alcohol poisoning is to get them immediate medical attention. This condition is frequently fatal if untreated, and it can kill quickly. Any embarrassment or hospital bills that accompany needing to go to the emergency room pale in comparison to the very real risk of death.

Although anyone with alcohol poisoning should go to the hospital immediately, there are some first aid steps to take in the meantime.

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Make sure that the individual stays on their side if they are laying down, NEVER on their back. This reduces the risk of death from choking on vomit.
  • Continue to supervise the individual in question. Do not leave them alone or unattended.
  • Get assistance from others if necessary.
  • Monitor the individual’s breathing.

How To Prevent Alcohol Poisoning

Perhaps the only good thing about alcohol poisoning is that it is 100% preventable. Taking the following steps will help avoid a dangerous situation from developing.

  • Only drink in moderation, if at all. Have 1 drink at most per day; ideally, abstain.
  • Drink slowly.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach.
  • Make sure to drink sufficient water.
  • Store alcohol products carefully and out of the reach of children.
  • Educate your family and friends (especially teens) about the dangers of alcohol poisoning.

BAC Chart

While everyone processes alcohol slightly differently, and even the same person will process alcohol differently under different circumstances, this chart provides a rough estimate of BAC at various weights and numbers of drinks. BACs in italics are above the legal limit in most states.

Weight (lbs) Number of Drinks
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
100 0.032 0.065 0.097 .0129 .0162 0.194 0.226 0.258 0.291
120 0.027 0.054 0.081 0.108 0.135 0.161 0.188 0.215 0.242
140 0.023 0.046 0.069 0.092 0.115 0.138 0.161 0.184 0.207
160 0.020 0.040 0.060 0.080 0.101 0.121 0.141 0.161 0.181
180 0.018 0.036 0.054 0.072 0.090 0.108 0.126 0.144 0.162
200 0.016 0.032 0.048 0.064 0.080 0.097 0.113 0.129 0.145
220 0.015 0.029 0.044 0.058 0.073 0.088 0.102 0.117 0.131
240 0.014 0.027 0.040 0.053 0.067 0.081 0.095 0.108 0.121

Don’t Let Alcohol Poisoning Happen

If you or someone you love is engaging in dangerous drinking behaviors that could lead to alcohol poisoning, especially if it’s on a regular basis, you need to get help now. Help comes too late for the more than 2,000 Americans who die every year from alcohol poisoning, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Contact a treatment provider today to discuss rehab options.

Last Edited:


Jeffrey Juergens

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  • Jeffrey Juergens earned his Bachelor’s and Juris Doctor from the University of Florida. Jeffrey’s desire to help others led him to focus on economic and social development and policy making. After graduation, he decided to pursue his passion of writing and editing. Jeffrey’s mission is to educate and inform the public on addiction issues and help those in need of treatment find the best option for them.

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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional

Theresa Parisi

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  • Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.

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