What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose is a serious and potentially deadly consequence of consuming too much alcohol too quickly. Alcohol poisoning occurs when your bloodstream has so much alcohol that areas of your brain that control basic involuntary life-support functions start to shut down. Involuntary life-support functions include temperature control, swallowing, heart rate, and breathing.

So, how much alcohol is too much? This depends on many factors, such as your age, weight, sex, and speed of consumption. It also depends on whether you are also consuming food, drinking non-alcoholic drinks at the same time, or mixing alcohol with other drugs.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

A sign is something both the patient and others can observe, sense, or feel, while a symptom is only felt by the patient. A skin rash is a sign while a headache is a symptom. If you have a headache but do not mention it, nobody will know.

The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Irregular/slow breathing.
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Mental confusion or stupor.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Unconsciousness.
  • Urinary incontinence.
  • Bowel incontinence.
  • Lack of coordination (unable to walk, stand, or pick up things).
  • Words are slurred. Sometimes, the person is unable to speak.
  • No gag reflex (gag reflex prevents choking).
  • Blue-tinged or pale skin. On brown/black skin, this is easier to see under the fingernails, on the gums, and inside the lips.

If you see somebody exhibiting these signs after consuming too much alcohol, seek medical help immediately. Do not assume that all will be fine after they sleep it off.

What you can do

  • Call 911 (999 in the UK/Ireland, 000 in Australia, and 112 in India).
  • You may be asked to provide information to the emergency operator, including what the person drank, whether they also took any drugs, and their general health (allergies, medications, and current health conditions).
  • Stay with that person to make sure they do not choke on their own vomit or stop breathing.
  • If they are vomiting, lean them forward to prevent choking.
  • If they are awake, sit them up.
  • If they have passed out, place them in the recovery position.
  • If they can swallow, give them water to sip.
  • Keep them warm.

Why is alcohol poisoning dangerous?

Alcohol depresses the nerves that control breathing, the gag reflex, and other involuntary actions. If your gag reflex is not working, you could choke on your own vomit.

Too much alcohol can push your blood sugar level so low that you have a seizure (a fit).

Being drunk vs. alcohol poisoning

The two states are similar. The mechanism behind them are the same, with alcohol dulling the drinker’s system. A person with alcohol poisoning has consumed more alcohol than somebody who is drunk.

If you are drunk, you may be very talkative or active. This is not the case with somebody who has overdosed with alcohol – they are very quiet and feel sick, confused, and weak.

According to Banyan Treatment Centers:

“There isn’t a real difference between being drunk or suffering from alcohol overdose, the mechanisms behind the two are the same – alcohol is dulling systems within the mind and body. The only difference is that when a person is suffering from alcohol overdose, they’ve had far too much to drink and alcohol’s dangerous effects on the mind and body are magnified to a deadly level.”

Image showing how alcohol can affects you - for alcohol poisoning article.

Image created by MedicalVocab.com.


You will probably be hospitalized and monitored. Alcohol poisoning can cause serious health complications, such as heart or liver failure. It can kill you.

In the hospital, you may receive the following treatments:

  • Intravenous fluids (with a drip) to treat dehydration and low blood sugar levels.
  • Oxygen, using a nasal cannula, which is a flexible tube that is clipped to your nose. If you have trouble breathing, they may place a small tube into your windpipe.
  • Stomach pumping, which involves inserting a tube into your stomach to clear it of toxins.
  • Dialysis to filter alcohol from your blood if your kidneys can’t do it on their own.


All the complications below are medical emergencies and are potentially fatal.

  • Choking on your own vomit.
  • Asphyxiation (when breathing stops).
  • Severe dehydration.
  • Brain damage.
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Seizures (due to low blood sugar).
  • Coma.
  • Heat attack.

Tips to prevent alcohol poisoning

  • Drink in moderation or abstain completely.
  • Drink water after each alcoholic drink.
  • Do not mix alcohol and medications.
  • Have a meal first. Try to void drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Avoid energy drink cocktails.
  • Do not take part in drinking games.
  • Talk to your teenage children about the dangers of binge drinking and alcohol overdose.
  • If you think you are becoming dependent on alcohol (alcoholic), seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous. If you are not sure what to do, talk to your doctor, a family member, or a good friend.

The following advice comes from The Cleveland Clinic:

“To prevent alcohol poisoning, limit your alcohol consumption. You need to know when enough is enough. If you or a friend are drinking, pay attention to how much you consume and how quickly. If a friend appears to be drinking too much too fast, try to intervene and limit how much more they have. Moderation is always important. Drink no more than one alcohol-containing beverage an hour.”