Overdosing on Alcohol
A person can overdose on alcohol if he or she drinks too much in a short amount of time. An overdose can be fatal or lead to long-lasting health damage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths in the U.S. each year. 1
What Is Alcohol Overdose?
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An alcohol overdose is a life-threatening condition that occurs when alcohol levels are too high for the brain to effectively regulate nervous system control over physiologic processes such as heart rate, breathing, and temperature. It is usually the result of consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time.
The symptoms of an overdose can range from coordination problems and slurred speech to coma or death.
Severe impairment generally occurs when an adult has a BAC between 0.16 to 0.3, and life-threatening consequences generally occur at 0.31 to 0.45 or above. 2
Factors that can affect the risk of overdose include: 2
- Tolerance level.
- The amount of food eaten.
- Other drugs taken.
- Variance in individual ability to metabolize alcohol.
Underage drinkers and binge drinkers (4 or more drinks in 2 hours for women and 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for men) may be at particular risk for alcohol overdose if they quickly consume large amounts of alcohol as part of drinking games, hazing, or doing shots. 2
Signs and Symptoms
Signs of alcohol poisoning include: 2, 3
- Unsteady walking.
- Inability to wake up.
- Slow heart rate.
- Low body temperature.
- Trouble breathing.
- Clammy, blue skin.
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Contrary to popular belief, cold showers, hot coffee, and walking will not reverse the effects of an alcohol overdose. 2
If you observe the signs of an overdose in someone, get medical help immediately. The person does not have to exhibit all the symptoms to need help.
Take the following steps: 3
- Call 911: Be prepared to tell the 911 dispatcher how much alcohol the person drank and when. However, you don’t need this information to make the call.
- Don’t leave the person alone: Monitor them to make sure their condition does not get worse.
- Keep the person sitting up if they vomit: If they have to lie down, turn them to one side, which helps prevent choking. Do not urge them to vomit unless you are told to do so by medical personnel.
Treatment for an alcohol overdose usually includes: 2, 3
- Airway support, such as breathing tubes or a ventilator.
- IV fluids.
- B-12 and thiamine to preclude against the complications of common alcoholic nutritional deficiencies.
- Gastric lavage (or stomach pumping) to minimize absorption of already ingested alcohol or other drugs.
- Activated charcoal administration to further minimize absorption of gastric contents.
Can You Die From Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning can slow breathing and heart rate, and can lead to asphyxiation.
Yes, overdosing on alcohol can be fatal. 2, 4
- Alcohol can diminish the protective gag reflex – potentially resulting in vomiting and increasing the risk of aspiration. A person with no gag reflex who vomits can inhale and choke on stomach contents and die from asphyxiation.
- Breathing can slow and even stop.
- Heart rate can slow and even stop.
- The person’s body temperature can drop so low that it leads to cardiac arrest.
- Severe dehydration from vomiting can result in seizures, secondary brain injury, and death.
Alcohol poisoning can also lead to hypoglycemia, which can promote seizures in susceptible individuals.
In addition, a person’s BAC can continue to rise after the person has passed out or become unconscious. The alcohol someone has ingested can continue to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine – putting someone who has consumed a large amount of alcohol at risk of overdose. 2
Recovering From an Overdose
Surviving an alcohol overdose is possible if the person receives treatment in time. 4
Many people who overdose on alcohol and other drugs are struggling with a substance abuse problem. To prevent another overdose or other harmful effects from drinking, a person in recovery from alcohol poisoning should seek some form of addiction treatment.
Types of recovery programs for alcohol abuse include:
- Inpatient or residential alcohol recovery centers require you to reside at the facility for the duration of treatment. Typical treatment lengths may range from 30 days to 90 days. In many instances, residential treatment centers will consist of an intake evaluation, a monitored period of detoxification, individual and group therapy, and aftercare planning, in addition to around-the-clock staff supervision and access to medical services, when needed. Luxury and executive options are also available.
- Outpatient rehab programs can range from intensive programs that meet several days a week for several hours at a time to group or individual sessions that meet once a week. These programs are usually good for people who have just completed an inpatient program or do not have severe and/or long-term addictions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an organization consisting of and autonomously run by people in recovery from alcohol abuse. Participants receive wisdom and support from their recovering peers, while working the steps of the program to help them make amends to those they’ve harmed and progress through their recovery. Non-12-step programs are also available.
Find a Recovery Center
If you or someone you know is seeking recovery from alcohol poisoning, call 1-888-319-2606 Who Answers? to learn more about addiction treatment programs. A rehab support advisor can help you find options based on your insurance.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Medline: Ethanol Poisoning.
. Ries, R. K., Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., & Seitz, R. (2009). The ASAM principles of addiction medicine (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.