Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks too much too fast and their blood alcohol content rises to an unsafe level. The condition can cause low body temperature, brain damage and seizure.
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Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening condition. If you are with someone who has consumed too much alcohol and is at risk for alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do not hesitate.

Signs and symptoms of an alcohol overdose include:

  • Vomiting or dry heaving (retching)
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Blue or pale skin color
  • Low body temperature
  • Unconsciousness
  • Inability to wake up

People exhibiting any of these symptoms may have alcohol poisoning that requires medical treatment. They do not have to exhibit all of the symptoms to be in danger. At-home remedies are not effective at treating an alcohol overdose, and some nonmedical remedies may worsen the condition.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a medical condition that occurs when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) becomes so high that the brain can no longer control important life functions. The brain controls heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature. When a person consumes too much alcohol, the brain can no longer regulate those functions properly.

In the United States, alcohol poisoning kills an average of six people per day and 2,200 people per year.

The condition is also known as alcohol overdose. If untreated, alcohol poisoning can cause death or permanent health problems. In the United States, alcohol poisoning kills an average of six people per day and 2,200 people per year, according to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many people learn how to drink moderately after drinking too much. But how much is too much? If you’re intent on drinking to relax, then drinking until you struggle to walk is too much. Some people drink to get drunk, but they don’t intend on drinking until they vomit.

Excessive drinking is usually associated with blacking out, experiencing a hangover or making decisions that you later regret. In severe situations, drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning.

The risk of alcohol poisoning increases when people binge drink or drink heavily. For women, heavy drinking refers to drinking more than seven drinks in a week, and binge drinking is having four or more drinks in two hours. For men, heavy drinking is consuming more than 14 drinks per week, and binge drinking is having five or more drinks in two hours.

Heavy drinking and binge drinking are also risk factors for alcohol addiction. Drinking regularly increases your tolerance to alcohol, but it doesn’t decrease your risk of getting alcohol poisoning. Alcohol dependence is a factor in 30 percent of deaths from alcohol poisoning, according to the CDC.

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How Much Alcohol Does It Take to Overdose?

When people drink in moderation, their BAC doesn’t rise to an unsafe level, and they feel only mildly impaired. When a person drinks too quickly, the body’s metabolism can’t keep up. BAC rises, the effects of alcohol amplify and the brain begins to malfunction.

Exceeding daily guidelines for moderate drinking can cause health consequences. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that women should consume up to one alcoholic drink per day and that men consume up to two drinks per day. Some beers, liquors and wines are stronger than others.

On average, one standard drink equals:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor

The amount of alcohol that it takes to get alcohol poisoning differs for each person. Personal and environmental factors can affect how quickly BAC rises.

Factors that affect BAC include:

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Food
  • Medications
  • Rate of drinking

Most people become severely impaired and risk experiencing alcohol poisoning when their BAC rises above 0.16 percent. They’re more likely to vomit, black out and lose consciousness than people with lower BAC levels. A BAC above 0.31 percent significantly increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. Most people can’t remain conscious at this BAC, and the brain struggles to regulate vital functions.

Several factors can increase your risk of getting alcohol poisoning, including:

If you believe you’re at risk for alcohol poisoning, you should stop drinking immediately. Notify someone you trust and find a safe way to get to a secure location. If you are struggling to stay conscious, having trouble concentrating, struggling to breathe or feeling cold, call 911 immediately.

How to Help Someone with Alcohol Poisoning

It can be tough to determine when someone is at risk of overdosing on alcohol. In some social drinking situations, getting drunk is considered normal. You can tell that people are at risk for alcohol poisoning if they appear drunk and continue to drink.

Warning signs of a high BAC include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Glossy eyes
  • Coordination loss
  • Reckless or aggressive behavior
  • Memory loss

Once people are showing these warning signs, they should stop drinking. Depending on how much alcohol they consumed and how quickly they drank, they may still be at risk for alcohol poisoning after their last drink. Their BAC will keep rising because the body continues to break down the alcohol that has been consumed. Alcohol stays in your system for several hours after you quit drinking. The body cannot eliminate alcohol as fast as it can absorb it into the bloodstream.

Complications of untreated alcohol poisoning include:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Irregular or stopped heartbeat
  • Choking on vomit
  • Seizures
  • Hypothermia
  • Brain Damage
  • Death

Carefully monitor people at risk for alcohol poisoning and never leave them unattended. Look for signs of overdose, including slowed breathing, low body temperature or loss of consciousness.

If someone is showing signs of an alcohol overdose:

  • Seek medical help immediately. Medical attention can reduce the risk of complications associated with alcohol poisoning.
  • Don’t leave the person unattended if he or she is unconscious.
  • Help the person sit up to prevent choking on vomit. Place an unconscious person on his or her side in the recovery position to keep the airways open.
  • Don’t try home remedies or let the person sleep it off because BAC may continue to rise.
  • Don’t let the person take a cold shower, which may cause dangerous changes to body temperature.
  • Don’t let the person drink caffeine or walk off symptoms of intoxication. Walking it off can put people at risk for accidents.

Most of the time, calling 911 is the best option when someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning. If the person is already in a vehicle with a sober driver, taking them to an emergency room may also be an appropriate response.

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Treatment & Recovery from Alcohol Poisoning

Health professionals need as much information as possible to determine the best way to treat alcohol poisoning. Provide specific details about when drinking started, how much was consumed, whether drugs or medications were consumed and how much food was eaten beforehand. It’s also important to mention the existence of any other medical conditions.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning usually includes several support services:

  • Monitoring pulse and respiration rate
  • Keeping the airway unblocked
  • Providing oxygen therapy
  • Delivering intravenous (IV) fluids

Alcohol has no antidote, and stomach pumps are not a recommended form of treatment. If a head injury or other complication is suspected, doctors may perform further tests.

An alcohol overdose can be wake-up call for individuals with a history of binge drinking. Before discharge from treatment, many health providers try to educate patients about ways to avoid alcohol poisoning.

If patients report a history of chronic alcohol use or if they experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms as they sober up, they may be addicted to alcohol. Recovering from alcohol poisoning can be an opportune time for individuals to find an alcohol rehab center to safely detox from alcohol.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer,
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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