Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

man experiencing alcohol poisoning hunched over toilet holding empty bottle

When someone drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, they may experience alcohol poisoning, which can cause extreme damage and even be fatal. Six people die every day in the United States because of alcohol poisoning. People who binge drink should be aware of what the signs of alcohol poisoning are (such as choking, passing out, and difficulty breathing) so that they know when to seek help.

Alcohol is processed by the liver. When people drink ethanol faster than their liver can metabolize it, it builds up in the bloodstream. Alcohol quickly starts to affect various organs in the body, including the brain, which leads to typical signs of drunkenness. When people continue drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, the ethanol will start to seriously damage the brain, and organs may start to shut down, leading to alcohol poisoning signs.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits such as rum, whiskey, or vodka, although it’s important to remember that some types of drinks within each category have higher levels of alcohol.

For example, craft beer often contains more ethanol than light beer, and a higher-proof liquor has more booze than a lower-proof one. With each drink that a person has, the amount of alcohol in their system will rise. It will also rise faster if they haven’t eaten in a while or are mixing alcohol with other substances.

A person’s age, weight, sex, and genetics will also affect how quickly their liver metabolizes alcohol. Even between two people who have had exactly the same amount to drink, one person may be more likely than the other to get drunk faster and start displaying signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking makes alcohol poisoning more likely. Binge drinking occurs when men have had five drinks or women have had four drinks within a two-hour period. This pattern of drinking is especially common in teens and young adults.

In 2017, 13.5% of high schoolers reported that they had engaged in binge drinking within the past month. However, while young people are more likely to binge drink, over three-quarters of the people who die from alcohol poisoning are adults aged 35-64. Drinking more slowly or having fewer drinks in one sitting lowers the chance that someone will have alcohol poisoning.

Early Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Anyone who binge drinks, or spends time around others who drink heavily, should be aware of alcohol poisoning warning signs. Initial symptoms will start to occur once alcohol, as well as other toxins created when the liver processes alcohol, start causing damage to organs like the brain and heart. Early signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Feeling confused or disoriented
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular or fast heartbeat
  • Severe dehydration
  • Clammy skin
  • Choking
  • Passing out

If someone exhibits these more mild alcohol poisoning signs, others near that person should keep a close eye on them. It can take some time for alcohol to enter the bloodstream after a person takes a drink, so if a person starts experiencing these side effects while drinking or shortly after, there is a good chance that their blood alcohol levels will continue to rise and their symptoms will become more severe.

Serious Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Signs of severe alcohol poisoning may start to be visible once a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is in the range of 0.16-0.30%. At levels higher than this, the person’s risk of death is significantly increased. If milder alcohol poisoning symptoms are left untreated, a person who is overdosing on alcohol may experience:

  • Dangerously low body temperature, which may include blue-tinged lips or skin,
  • Respiratory failure,
  • Heart attack,
  • Seizures, and/or
  • Permanent brain damage.

These signs all indicate that someone is at risk of death from alcohol poisoning. If these symptoms are observed, people should seek emergency medical care by calling 9-1-1. People can also get more information about alcohol poisoning by calling:

  • National Poison Control Center (800-222-1222)
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (800-662-4357).

Some of these symptoms are hard to observe because the person may have passed out. If the person is completely unresponsive and won’t wake up after falling unconscious, this is a sign that they are experiencing severe alcohol poisoning. You can also monitor a person’s breathing. If the person has 10 seconds or more between breaths or breathes less than eight times per minute, they may be going into respiratory arrest.

Treatment of Alcohol Poisoning

If someone is showing signs of an alcohol overdose, call 9-1-1 right away. Alcohol poisoning is potentially fatal, but emergency medical services can provide people with life-saving support. “Sleeping it off” is not a cure for alcohol poisoning, because people’s BAC levels may continue to rise even after they pass out. Serious symptoms like a heart attack or seizures can still occur.

People who are suffering from alcohol poisoning should not be left alone. Someone should stay with them and try to keep them awake if possible. A big potential danger for people who have alcohol poisoning is choking on their own vomit. They should stay sitting up if they are awake, or be rolled over onto their side if they are passed out. Wait until medical help arrives.

Also, emergency responders usually give people fluids to help quickly rehydrate them and monitor and treat alcohol poisoning symptoms. Someone having respiratory difficulties may be put on breathing support. Their heart will also probably be continuously monitored so that any cardiac symptoms can be addressed immediately.

Alcohol poisoning is a sign that someone is misusing alcohol. If you or someone you care about is having trouble managing their alcohol use, professional help may be needed in order to prevent any future harm from alcohol overdoses. Alcohol treatment centers can help you learn how to take control of your drinking. Call The Recovery Village Ridgefield today to learn about options for alcohol detox, treatment, and recovery.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” January 6, 2015. Accessed August 23, 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Related Disease Impact (ARDI) application.” 2013. Accessed August 23, 2019.

Kanny, Dafna; Brewer, Robert D.; Mesnick, Jessica B.; Paulozzi, Leonard J.; et al. “Vital Signs: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths — United States, 2010–2012.” January 9, 2015. Accessed August 23, 2019.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” October 2018. Accessed August 23, 2019.