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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 Signs Should I Look For?

Critical signs of alcohol poisoning include mental confusion, stupor, coma, or inability to roused the individual; vomiting; seizures; slow (fewer than eight breaths per minute) or irregular (10 seconds or more between breaths) breathing; and hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, and paleness.

What Should I Do?

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.

Source: The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/