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Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening consequence of drinking too much. People experiencing alcohol poisoning can die if left untreated, and their symptoms can be so subtle that outsiders believe the drinker is just “sleeping it off.”

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In this article, we’ll help you spot the signs of alcohol poisoning, which can include slow or difficult breathing, reduced heart rate, feeling cold or clammy, vomiting, and passing out. We’ll also help you understand why you should call 911 when someone is overdosing and what you should say when you call.

People who experience repeated episodes of alcohol poisoning may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Treatment can help people understand how to quit drinking for good, and therapists can help people avoid and cope with relapse triggers too.

People with AUD should never drink. Even people without AUD should understand how to use alcohol responsibly by limiting their consumption, even at booze-filled parties.

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?

We watch fictional characters in TV shows and movies get up the morning after an alcohol binge, but after passing out, many real-life people don’t.

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. 

Alcohol poisoning symptoms include the following:

  •       Confusion
  •       Difficulty staying awake or inability to wake up
  •       Vomiting
  •       Seizures
  •       Slow breathing (a rate of less than 8 breaths per minute)
  •       Irregular breathing (10 seconds pass between breaths)
  •       Slow heartbeat
  •       Clammy skin
  •       Dulled responses, including no gag reflex
  •       Low body temperature
  •       Pale or blue-tinged skin

Why Is Alcohol Poisoning Dangerous?

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

An alcohol overdose is dangerous, in part, because alcohol works directly on parts of the brain that control basic life support functions, such as the following:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Temperature control

A brain sedated by alcohol will begin to shut down. As breathing and heart rates slow, cells begin to die. Blood clots. Death can quickly follow.

An alcohol overdose can also be dangerous due to a reduced gag reflex. As the brain shuts down, it can’t control normal functions like vomiting. When a person experiencing alcohol poisoning vomits, they can breathe the liquid back into their bodies and not gag on it. The fluid goes right down into the lungs and can cause choking or asphyxiation. Even if the person survives, their brain cells may be permanently damaged.

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.

Tell the operator the type and amount of alcohol the person drank, other drugs they took (if any), and health information you know about the person, such as medication allergies or known medical conditions. Describe the symptoms you see, and follow the instructions the operator gives you.

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

  • Warm them up. Use a blanket or your coat to trap body heat.
  • Stay with them. Don’t leave the person alone, even for a minute.
  • Keep them on the ground. Have them sit upright on the ground (not in a chair), or keep them lying on the floor if unconscious. A fall from a chair could injure them.
  • Prevent problems from vomiting. Have the person lean forward if they’re awake. If the person is unconscious or lying down, roll them to one side with an ear toward the ground to reduce choking risks.

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.

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. 

Alcohol rehab 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.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated March 22, 2024
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