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Alcohol Poisoning: Signs and What to Do

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. Know the signs and what you can do in the event that you encounter someone experiencing alcohol poisoning. 

Source: The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,

What happens to your body during an alcohol overdose?

Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing and the gag reflex, which prevents choking.  Vomiting is another common symptom of excessive drinking as alcohol irritates the stomach. Someone who drinks a fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop breathing. Choking caused by vomit also leads to an increased risk of death by asphyxiation in a person who is not conscious due to alcohol consumption.

Even if someone survives an alcohol overdose, he or she can suffer irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking (which often happens on a bet or a dare) is especially dangerous because the victim can drink a fatal dose before losing consciousness.

You should know that a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. Even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. A person who appears to be "sleeping it off"  may be in real danger.

What are the signs of alcohol poisoning?

Critical signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Cannot be roused and are unresponsive to your voice, shaking, or pinching their skin
  • Skin is cold, clammy, pale, bluish, and/or blotchy
  • Breathing is slow – eight or fewer breaths per minute
  • Experience lapses in breathing – more than 10 seconds between breaths
  • Exhibit mental confusion, stupor, or coma
  • Have seizures, convulsions, or rigid spasms
  • Vomits while asleep or unconscious and does not awaken
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
What to do if you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning?

Call 911. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, don’t wait for all of the critical signs to be present. Be aware that a person who has passed out may die. If you suspect an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately for help. Don’t try to guess the level of intoxication.

If the person is unconscious, semi-conscious, or unresponsive, check for these symptoms of alcohol or drug overdose:

  • Cannot be roused and are unresponsive to your voice, shaking, or pinching their skin.
  • Skin is cold, clammy, pale, bluish, and/or blotchy.
  • Breathing is slow – eight or fewer breaths per minute.
  • Experience lapses in breathing – more than 10 seconds between breaths.
  • Exhibit mental confusion, stupor, or coma.
  • Have seizures, convulsions, or rigid spasms.
  • Vomits while asleep or unconscious and does not awaken.

If they are conscious and responsive:

  • Stay with them. Check often to make sure they are still conscious and responsive.
  • Make certain that they stay on their side, not their back. See The Bacchus Maneuver
  • Before you touch them, tell them exactly what you are going to do. Be aware of any signs of aggression. Do not ridicule, judge, threaten, or try to counsel them.
  • Remain calm and be firm. Avoid communicating feelings of anxiety or anger.
  • Keep them quiet and comfortable. If they are in the sun, move them to the shade. If cold, move them to a warm place and offer a blanket.
  • Do not give them food, drink, or medication of any kind.
  • Remember that only time will sober up a drunk person. Walking, showering, or drinking coffee will not help and may actually cause harm.
What happens when an alcohol overdose Is untreated?
  • The victim may choke on his or her own vomit
  • Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops
  • The heart beats irregularly or stops
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature) may set it
  • Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) may lead to seizures
  • Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can also cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.

There is no minimum amount of alcohol that could cause alcohol poisoning.

Blood Alcohol Content (BAC): What it is, and how you measure it

If you choose to drink, you should be aware of your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). BAC is a measurement of alcohol in your body based on weight, the total number of drinks consumed, and the time in which they were consumed. Use the calculator on this page to help determine your BAC. 

Plan ahead

Estimate the length of time you will be drinking and figure out how many drinks you can safely have per hour. Some safer-drinking strategies include:

  • Set a limit for the night. Keep your bottle caps or move coins from one pocket to the other to track the number of drinks you consume.
  • Keep your stomach full. 
  • Make your own drinks and use less alcohol when mixing.
  • Alternate between alcohol and water (or another alcohol-free drink).
  • Keep it to one drink per hour. The liver can only break down alcohol at a rate of about one drink per hour. This is true for everyone. When you consume more than one drink per hour you risk damaging your liver.
Stay in the blue

Make it a goal to keep your BAC in the blue zone (.06 and below). At this level, individuals report feeling more relaxed, talkative, and slightly euphoric, but are still largely in control of their reasoning and actions. 

Understand what impacts BAC

Several factors influence your BAC level including your birth/biological sex, your body weight, the percentage of alcohol in your drink, your rate of drinking (how much alcohol you consume over time), and how much food is in your stomach before you start drinking.  

Mixing alcohol with other drugs will increase the effects of the substance and will lead to a more intoxicated state.  Learn more about why mixing alcohol with other drugs is harmful to your health.  

The BAC calculator below will help you learn how many drinks you can consume over time to stay in the blue zone. Enter the length of time you plan to drink, the number of standard drinks you plan to consume, your current weight, and select your birth/biological sex.  The tool will also tell you how many hours it will take for your BAC to return to zero. 

In the United States, a standard drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. One standard drink is equal to 12 fl oz of regular beer = 8-9 fl oz of malt liquor = 5 fl oz of table wine = 1.5 fl oz shot of 80-proof distilled spirits (gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, etc.)

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