What is alcohol intoxication?
Acute alcohol intoxication is a condition associated with drinking too much alcohol in a short amount of time. It’s also called alcohol poisoning.
Alcohol intoxication is serious. It affects your body temperature, breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex. It can also sometimes lead to coma or death.
Both young people and adults can experience alcohol poisoning. The condition is usually linked to drinking too many alcoholic beverages. But in some cases, people with this condition might have accidentally or intentionally drank household products containing alcohol, such as mouthwash or vanilla extract.
Alcohol intoxication is considered a medical emergency. If you think someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, seek emergency medical attention immediately.
Alcohol intoxication can occur quickly over a short amount of time. When a person is consuming alcohol, you might notice different symptoms. These symptoms are associated with different levels, or stages, of intoxication.
The stages of intoxication differ from person to person because they’re based on age, sex, weight, and other factors.
But generally, the seven stages of alcohol intoxication and their symptoms include the following:
1. Sobriety or low-level intoxication
If a person has consumed one or less drinks per hour, they’re considered to be sober, or low-level intoxicated.
At this stage of intoxication, the person’s behavior will be normal with no visible signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech or delayed reaction time.
Their blood alcohol content (BAC), which measures how much alcohol is in the bloodstream, will be very low at 0.01 to 0.05 percent.
If a person has generally consumed two to three drinks as a man or one to two drinks as a woman in an hour, they’ll enter the euphoric stage of intoxication.
Some symptoms include:
- an increase in chattiness and confidence
- a delayed reaction time
- decreased inhibitions
Most people call this stage of intoxication being “tipsy.” A person’s BAC at this stage might range from 0.03 to 0.12 percent.
Note that a BAC of 0.08 percent is the legal limit of intoxication in the United States. A person can be arrested for driving with a BAC above this limit.
At this stage, a man might have consumed three to five drinks in an hour, or two to four drinks for a woman. At this time, a person will begin to experience emotional instability and a significant loss of coordination.
Other symptoms include:
- a loss of judgment and memory
- vision problems
- loss of balance
A person will appear visibly “drunk” at this stage. They’ll have a BAC of 0.09 to 0.25 percent.
If a man consumes more than five drinks or a woman more than 4 drinks in an hour, they’ll enter the next stage of intoxication: confusion.
This stage of intoxication is marked by emotional outbursts and a major loss of coordination. The person may not be able to stand up, may stagger when walking, and will likely be extremely confused about what’s going on.
People in this stage of intoxication are very likely to forget things happening around or to them. They might “black out” without actually losing consciousness and may not be able to feel pain. This makes them at risk of injury.
At this stage, a person’s BAC is very high. It’ll range from 0.18 to 0.30 percent.
At this stage, a person no longer responds to the things happening around or to them.
A person won’t be able to stand or walk. They may completely pass out or lose control over their bodily functions, becoming incontinent or vomiting uncontrollably.
They may also experience seizures or have blue-tinged or pale skin. Their breathing and gag reflexes will likely be impaired.
This stage can be very dangerous and even fatal if a person chokes on their vomit or becomes critically injured.
Any of these symptoms are signs that immediate medical attention is necessary. At this stage, a person’s BAC will range from 0.25 to 0.4 percent.
This stage is extremely dangerous. A person’s breathing and blood circulation will be extremely slowed. Their motor responses and gag reflexes are nonfunctional, and their body temperature drops. A person at this stage is at risk of death.
Their BAC will measure in at 0.35 to 0.45 percent. Emergency medical attention is necessary at this point to avoid death and severe health problems.
At a BAC of 0.45 percent or above, a person is likely to die from alcohol intoxication.
It may seem like a person has to drink a lot to get to this stage. But if a person drinks very quickly, they can get to this stage before long.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates excessive alcohol use causes approximately
The standard drink in the United States contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This amount of alcohol is generally found in:
- 12 ounces of beer with a 5 percent alcohol content
- 8 ounces of malt liquor at a 7 percent alcohol content
- 5 ounces of wine at a 12 percent alcohol content
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor (such as rum, vodka, or whiskey) at a 40 percent alcohol content
Alcohol in the form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is found in:
- alcoholic beverages
- some household products like mouthwash and cooking extracts
Alcohol intoxication occurs from drinking too much alcohol in a short period of time.
Some people are more at risk of alcohol intoxication than others. Factors affecting your risk of alcohol intoxication include:
- Your body type and weight. Larger people absorb alcohol more slowly than smaller people.
- Your health status. Having certain health issues can put you at greater risk of alcohol poisoning.
- Whether or not you’ve eaten. Having food in your stomach before drinking can slow your body’s absorption of alcohol.
- Whether you’ve combined alcohol with other drugs. Consuming certain drugs before drinking can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning.
- The percentage of alcohol in your drinks. Drinks with a higher percentage of alcohol will raise your BAC more quickly than drinks with a lower percentage of alcohol.
- Your rate and amount of alcohol consumption. Drinking many drinks quickly puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning.
- Your level of alcohol tolerance. People who regularly drink are better able to tolerate alcohol than people who are only occasional drinkers.
Treatment for alcohol intoxication involves supportive care while the body tries to process the alcohol. You must seek emergency medical treatment for a person who’s showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Call 911 or your local emergency services.
At home, while you wait for professional care, you should:
- If they’re unconscious, gently turn the person on their side to prevent them from choking on vomit.
- If they’re conscious, encourage the person to lay on their side in a safe place until help arrives.
- If they’re able to swallow, encourage the person to drink water.
- Stay with the person until medical help arrives.
It’s a myth that a person can recover from alcohol intoxication by sleeping, taking a cold shower, going for a walk, or drinking black coffee or caffeine. In fact, doing these things can put an intoxicated person at greater risk of injury and death.
Emergency medical technicians will take the intoxicated person to the hospital. There, professionals will:
- carefully monitor vital signs
- prevent breathing or choking problems with a breathing tube that opens the airways
- give oxygen therapy
- give intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration
- give vitamins and glucose (sugar) to prevent complications
- fit a catheter, which allows urine to drain into a bag, so they don’t wet themselves
- pump the stomach (gastric lavage) to minimize the body’s absorption of already ingested alcohol
- give activated charcoal to further minimize the body’s absorption of alcohol
After an episode of alcohol intoxication, it takes time to recover. The person will be hospitalized until their vital signs return to normal. This may take days, up to weeks.
During the recovery period, a person may experience a depressed mood and appetite, discomfort, and memory problems. Even after a person is released from hospital care, it can take up to a month for them to feel normal again.
The good news is that it’s possible to survive alcohol intoxication if appropriate medical treatment is given promptly.