The short answer is, it depends.
The time it takes alcohol to both have an impact and subsequently leave your system can depend on many factors, such as your weight and how many drinks you’ve had within a given time.
Continue reading to learn more about alcohol poisoning, the symptoms to look out for, and when to seek emergency care.
Below we’ll explore some of the factors that can contribute to alcohol poisoning and how long you’ll feel the effects.
How many drinks can lead to alcohol poisoning?
The answer to this question varies from person to person. Alcohol affects everyone differently.
A multitude of things can influence how quickly alcohol acts on the body as well as the time it takes to clear from your body. Some examples include:
- the type and strength of alcohol consumed
- the rate at which the alcohol was consumed
- how much food you’ve eaten
- prescription medications, such as opioid pain medication, sleep aids, and some anti-anxiety medications
- your individual alcohol tolerance
Binge drinking is a common cause of alcohol poisoning. It’s defined as when a man has five drinks or more within two hours or when a woman has four or more drinks within two hours.
How much is a drink? It varies depending on the type of alcohol. For example, one drink can be:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of liquor
Additionally, some drinks, such as mixed drinks, can have more than one serving of alcohol in them. This can make it harder to keep track of how much alcohol you’ve actually consumed.
How do increasing levels of alcohol affect the body?
Consuming alcoholic beverages leads to increases in your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). As your BAC increases, so does your risk for alcohol poisoning.
Here are the general effects of BAC increases:
- 0.0 to 0.05 percent: You may feel relaxed or sleepy and can have mild impairments in memory, coordination, and speech.
- 0.06 to 0.15 percent: Memory, coordination, and speech are further impaired. Driving skills are also significantly affected. Aggression may increase in some people.
- 0.16 to 0.30 percent: Memory, coordination, and speech are severely affected. Decision-making skills are also very impaired. Some symptoms of alcohol poisoning may be present, such as vomiting and loss of consciousness.
- 0.31 to 0.45 percent: The risk of life-threatening alcohol poisoning is increased. Vital functions, such as breathing and heart rate, are significantly depressed.
It’s also important to remember that BAC can continue to increase as long as 40 minutes after your last drink. Therefore, if you’ve consumed a lot of alcohol, you could still be at risk for alcohol poisoning even if you’ve stopped drinking.
It’s important to know the symptoms of alcohol poisoning so you can seek medical attention. Someone with alcohol poisoning may experience the following:
- feeling confused or disoriented
- severe lack of coordination
- irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between each breath)
- slowed breathing (less than 8 breaths in a minute)
- slow heart rate
- skin that’s cold or clammy and may appear pale or blue
- lowered body temperature (hypothermia)
- being conscious but unresponsive (stupor)
- trouble staying awake or remaining conscious
- passing out and can’t be awakened easily
Alcohol poisoning treatment is performed in a hospital. It involves providing careful observation and supportive care while alcohol is cleared from the body. Treatment can include:
The best way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to drink responsibly. Follow the tips below:
- Consume alcohol in moderation. Generally speaking, this is two drinks per day for men and one per day for women.
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Having a full stomach may help slow the absorption of alcohol.
- Drink water. If you’re out drinking, try to stick to one drink every hour. Drink a glass of water after every couple of drinks.
- Be responsible. Keep track of how many drinks you’ve consumed. Avoid any drinks with unknown contents.
- Don’t binge drink. Avoid activities or drinking games that may pressure you to binge drink.
- Know your medications. If you’re taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications or supplements, be aware of any warnings regarding alcohol consumption.
Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. It can lead to complications such as choking, brain damage, and even death. Prompt medical treatment can help prevent these complications from occurring.
If you think someone has alcohol poisoning, never hesitate to seek emergency medical care. It’s important to remember that a person with alcohol poisoning may not have all the signs and symptoms. When in doubt, call 911.
While waiting for help to arrive, you can do the following:
- Don’t leave the person alone, especially if they’re unconscious.
- If the person is conscious, let them know you’re trying to help.
- Try to keep them awake. Give them water to sip.
- Help them if they’re vomiting. Try to keep them upright, but if they must lay down, turn their head to the side to prevent choking.
- Since hypothermia is a symptom of alcohol poisoning, cover the person with a blanket if one is available.
- Be prepared to give paramedics as much detail as you can about how much alcohol the person has consumed and what type of alcohol it was.
Alcohol poisoning happens when you drink too much alcohol too fast. It can lead to serious complications and even death. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, always call 911.
Ensuring that you drink responsibly can prevent alcohol poisoning. Always drink in moderation, and keep track of the amount of drinks you’ve had. Avoid any drinks with unknown contents.
If you think yourself or a loved one is misusing alcohol, never hesitate to seek help. Here are some good starting resources: