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Alcohol Poisoning: Signs, Symptoms & What to Do

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency that can result in death if not treated immediately. Signs of alcohol poisoning include slow or difficult breathing, reduced heart rate, feeling cold or clammy, vomiting, and passing out. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately and provide life-saving help until medical teams arrive. This article provides information on how alcohol poisoning starts, what it looks like, how to help a friend, how to avoid alcohol poisoning, and how to determine if you have an alcohol abuse issue.

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Signs of alcohol poisoning include slow or difficult breathing, reduced heart rate, feeling cold or clammy, vomiting, and passing out.

If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately.

How It Starts

You’re at a party, and the drinks are flowing. You may not know it, but you’re in a dangerous position. Whether it’s one you take or one your buddy sips, the next drink could result in alcohol poisoning. 

Someone who drinks too much could stop breathing and die right in the middle of the party. You’ll need to step in and provide life-saving help until medical teams arrive. 

What Does Alcohol Poisoning Look Like?

While fictional characters from the shows to movies we watch often times get up the next day, many real-life people don’t after passing out.

Every day, an average of six people die of alcohol poisoning. Some pass away at home, away from anyone who could help them. Others die while surrounded by friends who keep drinking, unaware that their friend is struggling to survive. 

Someone struggling with alcohol poisoning may display the following:

  • Breathe slowly or not at all 
  • Feel cold or clammy to the touch
  • Have a slow heart rate 
  • Pass out
  • Seem confused
  • Vomit

This list looks very similar to the signs and symptoms of drunkenness you see on television and in movies. Drunk people slur their words, stagger, and eventually pass out.

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. The help you give could save someone’s life. 

How to Help a Friend

You see someone with obvious symptoms of alcohol poisoning. What should you do next? Don’t wait or ask for someone else’s opinion. Pick up your phone and call 911.

While you wait for emergency medical teams to arrive, do the following:

  • Try to keep them awake. Keep the person sitting up, and talk loudly. Keep them from falling asleep, if you can. 
  • Give them water. If the person can swallow, offer sips of water. The goal is to get them hydrated. 
  • Warm them up. Use a blanket or your coat to trap in body heat. 
  • Stay with them. Don’t leave the person alone, even for a minute. 

If the person is passed out, use the recovery position. Roll the person onto their side, and tuck their legs up near the chest. Elevate their head, and stay with them.

This position helps ensure that they won’t choke on their vomit.

How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning

People who drink at twice the recommended limits are 70 times more likely to visit the emergency room with an alcohol problem.

Alcohol is a depressant drug that impedes critical body functions, including breathing, heartbeat, and gagging reflexes. While a small amount of alcohol may make you feel loose, free, and uninhibited, large doses can make you incredibly sick. Even bigger doses can kill you. 

The best way to avoid alcohol poisoning is to keep your drinking within recommended limits. For women, that’s one drink per day. For men, that’s two drinks per day. 

Sticking to your limits at parties can be difficult. But cutting loose has consequences.

People who drink at three times the recommended limits are 93 times more likely

Take smart steps to limit your alcohol:

  • Bring your own bottle. Come to any party with a nonalcoholic beverage you enjoy. Share it with your friends to encourage them to limit drinking too. Oftentimes, we drink whatever is in our hands; make it a safe choice.
  • Be accountable. Tell the people around you that you’re limiting your drinking, and ask them to remind you if you start to slip.
  • Find a buddy. Chances are, someone around you wants to stop drinking too. Link up and support one another. It’s much easier when you have someone joining your efforts.
  • Stop shopping. Don’t stock alcohol in your home, so you won’t be tempted to binge. If it isn’t in your home, it’s tougher to drink it. 

Some people find that skipping parties and booze-filled occasions is the best way to stay sober. But making a statement in a party situation could inspire others to stop drinking too. You could save a life. 

Do You Have an Alcohol Abuse Issue?

Alcohol is addictive, and some people struggle to limit use. 

You could have an alcohol problem if you meet the following criteria:

  • You’ve tried to quit before and couldn’t. 
  • You struggle to limit how much you drink.
  • You look forward to the moment in your day when you can start drinking. 
  • You think about drinking most of the time. 
  • You spend a lot of your money or time on drinking. 
  • You feel sick or nervous if you go a long time without drinking. 

Treatment programs can help you build up your skills so you can quit drinking for good. And if you struggle with relapse risks, your doctor could use medications to make your next sip less appealing. Reach out and get the help you need.

Updated May 30, 2023
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  2. Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose. (May 2021). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  3. Alcohol Poisoning. (April 2019). NHS.
  4. Alcohol Poisoning. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
  5. Deaths From Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States. (April 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (March 2022). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  7. The Diagnosis and Management of Toxic Alcohol Poisoning in the Emergency Department: A Review Article. (Summer 2019). Advanced Journal of Emergency Medicine.
  8. Outcomes After Toxic Alcohol Poisoning: A Systematic Review Protocol. (December 2018). Systematic Reviews.
  9. Bibliometric Profile of the Global Scientific Research on Methanol Poisoning (1902–2012). (May 2015). Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology.
  10. Alcohol-Related Deaths Spiked During the Pandemic, a Study Shows. (March 2022). The New York Times.
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