Alcohol Overdose

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on November 22, 2017Written by Darla Burke and Kristeen Cherney

What is an alcohol overdose?

Many people consume alcohol because it has a relaxing effect, and drinking can be a healthy social experience. But consuming large amounts of alcohol, even one time, can lead to serious health complications.

An alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, is one health problem that can result from too much alcohol consumption. It can happen when you drink too much alcohol at one time.

Call 911 if someone you know is experiencing an alcohol overdose. This is a serious condition that can be life-threatening.

What causes an alcohol overdose?

Alcohol is a drug that affects your central nervous system. It’s considered a depressant because it slows down your speech, movement, and reaction time.

It also affects all of your organs. An alcohol overdose happens when you drink more alcohol than your body can safely process:

  • The stomach and small intestine quickly absorb the alcohol, which enters the bloodstream at a rapid rate. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the quantity that enters your bloodstream.
  • The liver metabolizes the alcohol, but it can only break down so much at one time. What the liver can’t break down is redirected throughout the rest of the body.

Although everyone metabolizes alcohol at a different rate, usually, the body can safely process around one unit of pure alcohol per hour (about a third of an ounce, according to a system adopted in the United Kingdom — generally estimated to be the amount of alcohol in a small shot of liquor, a half pint of beer, or a third of a glass of wine). If you drink more than this and your body isn’t able to break it down fast enough, it accumulates in your body.

What are the risk factors for an alcohol overdose?

The most common risk factors that can raise your chances of having an alcohol overdose are:

  • age
  • gender
  • body size
  • tolerance
  • binge drinking
  • drug use
  • other health conditions

Age

Young adults are more likely to drink excessively, leading to an alcohol overdose.

Gender

Men are more likely than women to drink heavily, resulting in a greater risk for an alcohol overdose.

Body size

Your height and weight determine how quickly your body absorbs alcohol. Someone with a smaller body may experience the effects of alcohol more rapidly than someone with a larger body. In fact, the smaller-bodied person may experience an alcohol overdose after drinking the same amount that a larger-bodied person can consume safely.

Tolerance

Having a high tolerance for alcohol or drinking quickly (for example, by playing drinking games) can put you at increased risk for an alcohol overdose.

Binge drinking

People who binge drink (drink more than five drinks in an hour) are also at risk for alcohol overdose.

Other health conditions

If you have other health conditions, such as diabetes, you may be at greater risk for having an alcohol overdose.

Drug use

If you combine alcohol and drugs, you may not feel the effects of the alcohol. This may cause you to drink more, increasing your risk for an alcohol overdose.

What are the symptoms of an alcohol overdose?

Symptoms of an alcohol overdose can include:

  • changes in mental state, including confusion
  • vomiting
  • pale or blue skin
  • a decrease in body temperature (hypothermia)
  • passing out (unconsciousness)

Since alcohol depresses your nervous system, you may experience serious complications if you drink at a rate that is much faster than your liver can process the alcohol. These complications include:

  • slowing or stopping breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex, all of which are controlled by your nervous system
  • cardiac arrest following a decrease in your body temperature (hypothermia)
  • seizures as a result of low blood sugar levels

You don’t need to have all of the symptoms listed above to have an alcohol overdose. If someone’s breathing has slowed to less than eight breaths per minute — or if they can’t be woken up — call 911.

If you suspect an alcohol overdose and the person is unconscious, do not leave them alone.

Be sure to place them on their side in case they vomit. Because an alcohol overdose can suppress a person’s gag reflex, they could choke and possibly die if they vomit while unconscious and lying on their back. If vomit is inhaled into the lungs, it can cause a person to stop breathing.

You should remain with the unconscious person until emergency medical help arrives.

How is an alcohol overdose diagnosed?

If you experience an overdose, your doctor will ask you about your drinking habits and health history. Your doctor may also perform additional tests, such as blood tests (to determine your blood alcohol and glucose levels) and urine tests.

An alcohol overdose can damage your pancreas, which digests food and monitors the levels of glucose in your blood. Low blood sugar can be an indicator of alcohol poisoning.

How is an alcohol overdose treated?

An alcohol overdose is typically treated in the emergency room. The emergency room physician will monitor your vital signs, including your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature.

If you develop more serious symptoms, such as seizures, your doctor may need to provide additional treatments, including:

  • fluids or medications provided through a vein (intravenously)
  • supplemental oxygen provided through a mask or tube inserted in the nose
  • nutrients (such as thiamin or glucose) to prevent additional complications of alcohol poisoning, such as brain damage
  • medications to stop the seizure activity

What is the long-term outlook for an alcohol overdose?

If you experience an alcohol overdose, your outlook will depend on how severe your overdose is and how quickly you seek treatment.

Prompt treatment of an alcohol overdose can prevent life-threatening health problems. However, severe alcohol overdose may cause seizures, resulting in brain damage if oxygen to the brain is cut off. This damage can be permanent.

If you survive an overdose without these complications, your long-term outlook will be very good.

How can you prevent an alcohol overdose?

You can prevent an alcohol overdose by limiting your alcohol intake. You might consider sticking with one drink or abstaining from alcohol altogether. Seek help if you have a drinking problem.

Take action to protect your loved ones from an alcohol overdose. Talk to your children about the dangers of alcohol and possible overdose. According to the Mayo Clinic, open communication has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of teen drinking and subsequent alcohol poisoning.

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