Alcohol Poisoning: How It Happens, Effects, and Treatment

Alcohol poisoning is an increasingly significant problem in the United States. According to the CDC, deaths related to alcohol poisoning rose by about 14% between 2019 and 2020.1 This sharp increase is thought to reflect an increase in alcohol use during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other contributing factors.1

In this article, we will explore what alcohol poisoning is, its effects, and how to seek help for alcohol misuse.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning—also called alcohol overdose—is when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that parts of the brain start to shut down. This increase in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can affect critical, life-supporting functions, including:2

  • Heart rate.
  • Breathing.
  • Temperature control.

While an elevated BAC can result in some impairment at any level, when BAC is between 0.16 to 0.30%, a person may start to experience severe impairment, including symptoms such as:2

  • Blackouts.
  • Vomiting.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Dangerously impaired decision-making and judgment.

Alcohol misuse resulting in a BAC of 0.31 to 0.45% is life-threatening and puts a person at risk of death from alcohol overdose.2

Alcohol Poisoning Effects

There are a number of signs and symptoms that are indicators of an alcohol overdose. It is important to be aware of these alcohol poisoning effects so you can identify alcohol poisoning and get emergency medical help quickly.2

Signs and symptoms of alcohol overdose to be aware of include:2

  • Mental confusion or stupor.
  • Difficulty maintaining consciousness or difficulty waking up, which may be life-threatening.
  • Vomiting.
  • Slowed or irregular breathing.
  • Extremely decreased body temperature, as well as blue skin color, paleness, or clammy skin.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Dulled or delayed responses, such as lack of gag reflex.
  • Seizures.

A person does not need to have all of these signs and symptoms to have alcohol poisoning. Many of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening. Call 911 immediately if you suspect someone may be experiencing an alcohol overdose.2

How Does Alcohol Poisoning Happen?

Alcohol poisoning happens when a person consumes too much alcohol too quickly. The body is unable to process the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream.2

Certain alcohol use behaviors are associated with an increased risk of alcohol poisoning. These include:2,3,4

  • Binge drinking. When a person consumes 4 drinks for men or 5 drinks for women in a period of 2 hours or less, it can result in a BAC of 0.08% or higher.
  • High-intensity drinking. Drinking 2 or more times the binge-drinking thresholds can also result in alcohol poisoning.

Who Is at Risk of Alcohol Poisoning?

Anyone who consumes a large amount of alcohol in a short period is at risk of alcohol poisoning.2 However, the amount of alcohol that will result in alcohol poisoning differs from person to person and depends on various individual factors.2 Some of these factors include the following:2

  • Gender.
  • Age—teens and college-age young adults may be more likely to engage in binge drinking or high-intensity drinking.
  • Speed of drinking, as both binge drinking and high-intensity drinking are defined by a large consumption of alcohol in a short period.
  • Sensitivity to alcohol, or tolerance.
  • Medications or other substances you have taken—for example, using alcohol with painkillers such as opioids can exacerbate the effects of opioids on the brain.
  • Amount of food you have eaten before drinking.

Mixing Alcohol with Other Substances

About 1 in 5 emergency department visits associated with the misuse of prescription medicines also involved alcohol.5 Unhealthy alcohol use is associated with higher rates of benzodiazepine use compared with moderate drinkers or those who don’t drink.6

When benzodiazepines and alcohol are used concurrently, their sedative effects significantly increase the risk of adverse events, including fatal overdose.6

Combining alcohol with opioids also increases the risk of a fatal overdose. About 1 in 7 opioid-related deaths involved drinking alcohol within a few hours of using an opioid.7 Opioid overdose deaths where alcohol contributed to the death increased 41% from 2019 to 2020.8

Alcohol Misuse Treatment in New England

If you or a loved one are seeking treatment for alcohol misuse in New England, AdCare provides evidence-based alcohol rehab in Rhode Island as well as Massachusetts. Customized care is offered for multiple levels of addiction treatment—from medical detox, inpatient or residential to outpatient treatment.

To learn more about the rehab admissions process, how to use insurance coverage for addiction treatment, or find out about the various ways to pay for rehab, call . Compassionate admissions navigators are available to help 24/7.

You can also confidentially . Please don’t wait any longer to get the help you need. Alcohol addiction is treatable, and our team is here to support you.

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