Alcohol poisoning is a condition, which develops when a person has consumed excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. The blood level of alcohol rises very high and is defined as poisonous or toxic.

The clinical manifestations of this state are extreme confusion, unresponsive and disoriented state, shallow breathing, and the person can even pass out or go into a coma.

The situation is life-threatening and if emergency medical treatment is not administered, the person can die. Immediate hospitalization is essential for management.

The most common cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking, which goes beyond control. Binge drinking refers to heavy consumption of alcohol over a short period of time.

Generally, binge drinking is the consumption of five or more drinks in a row by men — or four or more drinks in a row by women — at least once in the previous 2 weeks.

Heavy binge drinking includes three or more such episodes in 2 weeks. While on a binge, a person can easily go beyond these parameters and get himself poisoned by alcohol.

There is depression of the nervous system when alcohol consumption is excessive. As a result, certain life-saving nerve reflexes are depressed and do not function.

The reflex that controls breathing and the gag reflex, which prevents choking on vomit become functionless. Acute alcohol poisoning also causes irreversible brain damage and should be treated on an emergency basis – else it can result in death.

Alcohol poisoning and alcohol abuse disorder

In both cases, the safe limits of alcohol are grossly crossed. It is necessary to note that alcohol poisoning is different from alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

While the former defines excessive drinking as excessive alcohol consumption over a short period at one sitting, alcohol abuse is regularly drinking 3 to 4 drinks regularly 3 times or more a week.

A person with alcohol abuse disorder becomes dependent on alcohol and craves for it. If he abruptly stops drinking, he will develop symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which can be mild or severe.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning is an emergency that is treated in a hospital, while the treatment for alcohol abuse is over an extended period and involves counseling, group therapy, and drugs. Such a person can be treated on an outpatient basis or may be admitted to a detox center. Part of the treatment will also involve treating the person for his alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol poisoning statistics

Stats for the U.K.

  • Alcoholism statistics show an increase of 20% in alcohol poisoning cases every year over the past 8 years.
  • Every day about 23 children are diagnosed with alcohol poisoning.
  • Hospital admissions went up from 6288 in 2000 to over 8000 in 2008

The U.S.

  • 50,000 people are diagnosed with alcohol poisoning every year.
  • That means more than 960 people every week.
  • The National Vital Statistics Report indicates that alcohol-induced deaths were 22,073 in 2006.


Alcohol poisoning signs and symptoms include:

  • Slow and irregular breathing (Less than 8 breaths per minute and a gap of about 10 seconds between breaths)
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Hypothermia or a fall in body temperature
  • Passing out or coma. (cannot be aroused)
  • Skin becomes pale
  • There is sweating
  • Fall in blood sugar levels leading to hypoglycemia.

On coming across a case of acute alcohol poisoning, seek medical help. Turn him over the side so that he lies down sideways. This is to prevent any vomit from being asphyxiated and causing choking.


When you drink alcohol, it reaches the stomach and the intestines from where it is absorbed through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream. It takes about 30 to 60 minutes for the alcohol to reach the blood.

It travels throughout the body via the blood. On reaching the brain, it starts causing intoxication and affects those centers of the brain that control vital functions like respiration, heart rate, and temperature.

Once the alcohol reaches the liver via the blood, it starts getting metabolized in the liver and gets converted into water, carbon dioxide, and energy.

Since people fail to understand the limits of alcohol tolerance in the body, alcohol poisoning can set in rapidly, without much warning. The liver can process or metabolize only one alcohol unit in one hour, which is

  • 25 ml of  whiskey or rum or vodka of 40% strength by volume, or
  • Half a pint of mild beer of 4% strength, or
  • 50 ml of fortified wine or sherry of 20% strength by volume.

Drinking faster than the speed of metabolism results in alcohol levels building up in the blood. Excessive drinking as in alcohol binge drinking (5 fast drinks in a row) can result in very high levels of alcohol build-up in the blood and its depressive action on the brain leads to the signs and symptoms mentioned above.

Your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) levels keep increasing for up to 40 minutes after you have stopped drinking.

The time required to get poisoned by alcohol depends on how fast and how much a person has drunk and it varies from person to person. The faster and more alcohol you have consumed, the more severe the case of alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning can also occur if somebody intentionally or unintentionally drinks large amounts of alcohol-containing household products. However, it is less common.

Effects of alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning causes certain complications, which are serious and can result in death. They are different from the effects caused by alcoholism.

  • Severe dehydration
  • Choking on one’s own vomit
  • Inhalation of vomit into the lungs leading to severe breathing difficulty
  • Irreversible brain damage due to the depressant action of alcohol on the brain
  • Coma
  • Death can result in unattended cases. Alcohol poisoning deaths can occur after extreme consumption of alcohol. Death by alcohol poisoning occurs due to respiratory arrest because of depression of the central nervous system caused by excessive levels of alcohol in the blood.
  • Alcohol poisoning and BAC. Death can also occur by asphyxiation due to inhalation of vomit. Death due to alcohol poisoning occurs after blood alcohol concentration or Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reaches 0.40 grams per 100 milliliters of blood.


Blood samples are tested for alcohol levels in the blood. High blood levels of alcohol will confirm alcohol poisoning. Blood is also tested for glucose levels because alcohol can cause dangerously low levels. Urine where possible is also tested for levels of alcohol.

  • BAC 0.30% to 0.40%: This percentage range will indicate that you are having alcohol poisoning and may experience loss of consciousness.
  • BAC Over 0.40%: This is a potentially fatal blood alcohol level. At these levels of BAC, you’re at risk of coma and death from respiratory arrest.

Alcohol poisoning treatment

Treatment of alcohol poisoning consists of preventing the complications of alcohol poisoning from developing and helping in getting rid of alcohol from the body. Management will include:

  • Admission into an intensive care unit
  • Stomach pumping to remove any alcohol that may be in the stomach
  • Care, watch, and monitoring of the patient
  • Intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and I.V. glucose if blood sugar has fallen low
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Prevent choking
  • Keeping the airway open
  • Administration of vitamins such as thiamin
  • Patients who have consumed methyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol will require kidney dialysis to facilitate faster removal of the toxins from the body