Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

In the United States, alcohol is a legal recreational drug for people aged 21 and older. It is one of the most common central nervous system (CNS) depressants that people use and abuse. While alcohol is a safe, social, or relaxing beverage for many people, it can also be dangerous if consumed in large amounts alcohol poisoning is possible, in addition thousands of Americans struggle with addiction to alcohol. Additionally, binge drinking is a large problem in the US – not just among college students who stereotypically like to party but increasingly among middle-aged adults too.

Woman in bed experiencing alcohol poisoning with an empty alcohol bottle in hand

What Are The Signs of Alcohol Poisoning?

The average adult can safely consume one serving of alcohol per hour – about 1.5 ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 8 ounces of beer. Body mass, age, gender, alcohol tolerance, medications, and medical conditions can all affect how much alcohol is safe for a person to consume.

Alcohol poisoning begins when the liver is no longer able to break down alcohol that has been consumed, and the substance is then circulated around the rest of the body without being metabolized. This can damage organ systems, including the liver, kidneys, and brain.

Consuming too much alcohol leads to alcohol poisoning, which is a dangerous overdose of this intoxicating substance. Call 911 immediately if a person is suspected of suffering from alcohol poisoning. A person experiencing alcohol poisoning may not show all of the associated symptoms, but the presence of just a few can be deadly.

What Are The Signs of Alcohol Poisoning?

  • Changes in mental state
  • Vomiting and gagging
  • Irregular or depressed breathing
  • Pale, clammy, or blue skin
  • Hypothermia
  • Passing out

The Main Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Changes in mental state:
    As the first few drinks are processed in the body, mild symptoms of intoxication will appear and begin to affect the individual’s physical and emotional state due to brain functions becoming suppressed. The person will begin to slur their speech and lose physical coordination. They could feel relaxed and perhaps even become sleepy (not the same as passing out). As more alcohol enters the bloodstream, the person may experience emotional changes like increased aggression or depression; their memory will worsen, up to the point of “blacking out,” which can occur when the person is conscious or unconscious; and their physical coordination will reduce until they are not able to walk or stand. Judgment and decision-making abilities will be severely impaired as the person becomes more intoxicated.
  • Vomiting and gagging:
    An overdose on alcohol suppresses the body’s gag reflex, while also upsetting the stomach. The body induces vomiting to remove the irritating and toxic alcohol from the stomach, but if the person’s gag reflex does not work, they will not be able to expel the vomit and are likely to choke. If the person aspirates, or inhales, the vomit while unconscious, they could stop breathing.
  • Irregular, depressed, shallow, or slow breathing:
    Once alcohol has flooded the person’s body systems, the brain will begin to slow down or stop bodily functions. One of the most common problems is depressed breathing. When the brain doesn’t tell the lungs to breathe, the body loses oxygen. As the lungs fail to bring in enough oxygen, the brain will begin to shut down further. If a person exhales and does not inhale again for 10 seconds or more, their breathing is considered depressed or irregular, and they need immediate medical attention.
  • Pale, clammy, or blue skin :
    Reduced oxygen in the brain and body is reflected in the quality of the person’s skin. If they become very pale, it is because there is less blood flow carrying oxygen, as the heart and lungs begin to shut down. Clammy skin can indicate changes in oxygen along with changes in body temperature and blood pressure. The first areas of the body to show loss of blood flow and oxygen are the extremities, such as the fingers, toes, tip of the nose, lips, and eyelids. These areas may become tinged with a bluish color, which is a clear indication that the person is not getting enough oxygen.
  • Hypothermia:
    Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops rapidly. Most people associate hypothermia with extreme cold, but it can also occur during drug overdoses, including alcohol poisoning. The blood vessels dilate, which allows heat to radiate faster from the body; at the same time, the body’s normal response to cold (shivering) is reduced due to suppression of physical responses to stimuli. This can get worse in cold weather, as people who are intoxicated have worse judgment about temperature changes and whether they need to wear warm clothing.
  • Passing out:
    Falling unconscious is not simply falling asleep; if the person does not wake up when being shaken or spoken to, they are unconscious. If they have been drinking, it is possible that they are experiencing alcohol poisoning.

A couple speaking about struggle with addiction to alcoholThe Risks of Alcohol Poisoning

Since alcohol is absorbed through the lining of the stomach and processed by the liver, a person can begin experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning even if they have stopped drinking. The body will continue to metabolize alcohol and increase the individual’s level of drunkenness. The person can become severely dehydrated, suffer seizures, develop permanent brain or organ damage due to lack of oxygen, and many other dangers. Once organ systems begin to shut down, the person is at risk of dying.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that on average, there are six deaths from alcohol poisoning per day – about 2,200 deaths annually. While many people have attributed alcohol poisoning deaths to binge drinking during college parties, currently, people aged 35-64 are at the greatest risk of suffering alcohol poisoning.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

People who struggle with alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, have a high risk of drinking too much. Although people suffering from alcohol use disorder are more likely to have built up a tolerance to the intoxicating substance, they may also binge drink after an attempt at abstinence or due to triggers or environmental stresses.

To avoid suffering an overdose due to problem drinking, it is important to get help. Medical detox can help a person end their body’s dependence on alcohol, and a complete rehabilitation program will help them address issues related to their alcohol abuse.