Alcohol overdose is the most dangerous side effect of heavy alcohol use. Learn about the risks, symptoms, and treatment for alcohol overdose.

What Is Alcohol Overdose or Poisoning?

Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease characterized by compulsive drinking despite the persistent physical, social, and emotional problems it causes. One dangerous result of this type of substance abuse is an alcohol overdose. Excessive alcohol use causes more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year, or 261 deaths per day.1

According to the CDC, one in six US adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming around seven drinks per binge.2 Alcohol is a drug, and like all drugs, there are risks. One of the most significant risks of alcohol use is an overdose—the dangers of alcohol overdose range from unconsciousness to cardiac arrest.


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The Dangers of Excessive Drinking

Alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning is a condition that occurs when someone has consumed too much alcohol in a short period. Alcohol toxicity occurs when the body cannot metabolize the alcohol fast enough, leading to death.

With so much alcohol in the system, the liver has trouble filtering it out. The liver can process only one unit of alcohol (or one standard drink) in one hour. If a person consumes more alcohol than the liver can process, their system will become saturated, and the excess alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues.

What Causes an Alcohol Overdose?

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol use in the United States. It is defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting for men and four or more drinks for women. Binge drinking can become deadly if the body is unable to filter large quantities of alcohol.

More than 90% of adults in the United States who drink excessively report binge drinking in the last thirty days. Younger adults between the ages of eighteen to thirty-four most commonly binge drink, although more than 50% of all binge drinks are consumed by people aged thirty-five and older.2

What BAC Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning happens when someone drinks enough alcohol to throw their BAC over 0.40%. Alcohol poisoning symptoms include confusion, difficulty breathing, seizures, and in extreme cases, coma or death. BACs that range between 0.60% and 0.80% are commonly fatal.3

Symptoms of an Alcohol Overdose

Some of the most common alcohol poisoning symptoms include:

Some of the more serious complications of excessive alcohol use include:

How Is an Alcohol Overdose Treated?

Alcohol Overdose

Careful Monitoring

Once the patient arrives at the hospital, the hospital staff will monitor them until their alcohol levels gradually drop.

Prevention of Breathing or Choking Problems

A person suffering from an alcohol overdose is at high risk of choking at their vomit and dying due to a lack of oxygen. If a person is unconscious or lying down, the best course of action in this scenario is to get them onto one side with an ear toward the ground to prevent choking.

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy for alcohol overdose is the process of giving the patient an oxygen mask to help them breathe while they are being treated. This process helps keep the blood from becoming too acidic on the body’s way to the brain. Oxygen therapy for alcohol overdose also removes any potentially harmful gases from the body to function correctly again.

Fluids To Prevent Dehydration

This type of therapy involves fitting an intravenous drip into the person’s vein to prevent or treat dehydration. It helps improve their blood sugar and vitamin levels.

Use of Vitamins and Glucose

Excessive alcohol use is associated with deficiencies in many vitamins due to decreased food ingestion and impaired absorption. Moreover, heavy alcohol use impacts the liver, specifically its ability to release glucose into the bloodstream. Patients of alcohol overdose receive vitamins and glucose treatment to help prevent serious complications of alcohol poisoning.

Dangers of Alcohol Overdose

These are some of the dangers of an alcohol overdose:4

Slowing or Stopping Breathing

Alcohol poisoning can lead to an irregular heartbeat and, in some cases, cause the heart to stop functioning. Moreover, if a person accidentally inhales vomit into their lungs, they can experience a dangerous or fatal interruption of breathing (asphyxiation).

Cardiac Arrest

One of the more life-threatening side effects of alcohol poisoning is hypothermia or a drop in body temperature. The person’s body temperature may drop so low that it leads to cardiac arrest.

Severe Impairment

Heavy drinking can lead to severe impairment in motor coordination, impulse control, decision-making, and other vital functions, significantly increasing the risk of harm. The severity of impairment depends on a range of factors, such as the person’s age, sensitivity to alcohol, gender, and speed of drinking.

Life-Threatening Issues

When BAC reaches high levels, several life-threatening side effects can appear, including loss of consciousness, brain damage, and death.

How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning?

Avoid Alcohol Poisoning

Avoid Binge Drinking

One of the best ways to avoid alcohol poisoning is to avoid binge drinking. Moderate drinking is the best course of action to avoid the life-threatening side effects of heavy drinking. Moderate drinking for men means up to two drinks per day and one drink per day for women.

Avoid Drinks With Unknown Alcohol Content or Mixing Alcohol With Energy Drinks

Another way to avoid alcohol overdose is to steer clear drinks with unknown alcohol content. You should also avoid mixing alcohol with energy drinks. Energy drinks generally contain caffeine. Caffeine can mask the depressant effects of alcohol, which can lead to drinkers feeling more alert than they are. As a result, they may consume life-threatening amounts of alcohol and become severely impaired, increasing the risk of harm.

Get Help for Anyone Experiencing Life-Threatening Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

If you notice that someone is experiencing life-threatening signs of alcohol poisoning, the best thing you can do is call 911 right away. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, try to keep the person in an upright sitting position and make sure they remain awake.

Talk to Your Doctor, Nurse, or Other Health Care Provider

If you or someone you love is struggling with a drinking problem, do not be afraid to ask for help. Talk to a doctor, nurse, or other health care provider.