Problematic patterns of drinking can increase the likelihood of adverse consequences, including the risk of alcohol poisoning and death. In the US, an estimated 6 people die from alcohol poisoning every day, with roughly 3 out of every 4 alcohol poisoning deaths occurring in adults ages 35-64.1
Alcohol poisoning can develop when too much alcohol is consumed within a short amount of time.1 As the amount of alcohol in the blood rises beyond a critical threshold, it can begin to inhibit certain brain processes that control vital bodily functions such as body temperature, breathing and heart rate.1
You can lower your risk of alcohol poisoning by understanding what defines a standard drink, how higher blood alcohol concentration can affect you, and when it may be necessary to seek professional help to quit drinking altogether.
Drinking Levels Defined
A person’s liver can process the alcohol in one standard drink an hour.2-1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a standard drink is 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of spirits.1,2
Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is a measurement of the level of alcohol in one’s system; the more a person drinks, the higher the BAC level which can result in that person being increasingly impaired.3 How quickly a person’s BAC level rises can also be affected by other factors such as an individual’s weight, gender, pattern of drinking, and whether alcohol is consumed on an empty or full stomach.
Binge drinking involves consuming 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women in around a 2-hour period—a rough estimate of the amount of alcohol it takes for a person to reach a .08 BAC.4 The greater the amount of alcohol consumed during a binge, the greater the risk for serious or fatal outcomes from alcohol poisoning.1
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning can occur when the body’s ability to process and clear alcohol is outpaced by the rate at which alcohol is consumed, at which point vital physical processes may stop working properly.1 The amount of alcohol that causes such physical compromise varies from person to person and may be additionally influenced by age, gender, alcohol sensitivity or tolerance, how fast alcohol is consumed, other medications in the body, and how much food has been consumed.5
Signs of alcohol poisoning include nausea and vomiting, mental confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, weak pulse and lowered blood pressure, irregular breathing or heart rate, and bluish, pale, or clammy skin.5 When severe, alcohol poisoning can lead to impaired breathing, choking, and asphyxia with the resultant lack of oxygen resulting in lasting brain damage and/or death. 5
If you see someone who appears to be experiencing alcohol poisoning, it is important to act quickly.5
- Call 9-1-1.
- Provide information to first responders, including type and amount of alcohol consumed, any other drugs, medications, allergies, and health conditions.
- Stay with the person and help them stay seated but partially upright to prevent falls and choking. Help the person lean over if they vomit or turn them on their side if they are lying down.
- Do not “doctor” the person yourself with coffee, cold showers, or walking, as these do not reverse the effects of alcohol poisoning and may cause further harm.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Many people with alcohol problems are no longer able to stop drinking despite desiring to do so, experience physical and emotional distress when not drinking, and continue to drink no matter the negative ramifications. Anyone meeting 2 of 11 criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) within a 12-month period may be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD).6 The severity of AUD diagnosis depends on how many criteria are met.6
You or your loved one may have an alcohol use disorder if you experienced the following within the last year:6
- Drank alcohol in larger quantities or for longer periods than intended.
- Tried to quit drinking but couldn’t.
- Spent a lot of time participating in activities necessary to get, use or recover from alcohol.
- Had strong cravings for alcohol.
- Found that drinking, or being sick from drinking, interfered with family, school, or employment.
- Continued to drink despite social or interpersonal issues caused by or worsened by drinking.
- Kept drinking even though it made you depressed, anxious, caused problems with family or friends, and/or worsened a health problem.
- Cut back or gave up entirely on enjoyable activities so you could drink.
- Found yourself in dangerous situations during or after drinking such as driving drunk or engaging in unsafe sex.
- Had to drink larger amounts to feel the desired effects of alcohol (i.e., tolerance).
- Found that, when the alcohol wore off, you had trouble sleeping, physical tremors, sweating, mood changes (i.e., irritability, anxiety, depression), restlessness, or nausea (i.e., physiological dependence and withdrawal).
If you think you may be experiencing or displaying any of these signs, symptoms, or behaviors, you might want to consider speaking with a health professional or undergoing a more formal assessment to see if AUD could be an issue. The more criteria you meet, the more crucial the need for changes to be made in your life.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Experiencing even a single incidence of alcohol poisoning could suggest that your drinking behavior is problematic and a cause for concern. Frequent episodes of problematic drinking and high BAC levels could increase the likelihood of alcohol addiction developing.
If you think you or a loved one may have AUD, there are many ways to get help. When alcohol dependence is a significant factor, detoxification is commonly the first stage in the recovery process; a medical detox approach facilitates the administration of certain medications to help you manage some of the more severe, and sometimes dangerous symptoms of withdrawal.7
In addition to keeping people safe and comfortable through withdrawal, professional detox can set the stage for additional alcohol rehabilitation. During detox, you may begin discussing with your treatment team what options are available to you based on your recovery needs. Depending on your situation, continued rehabilitation efforts can be made in either an inpatient or outpatient settings. Both can provide a variety of therapies including private, group and family counseling; behavioral therapies; medication-assisted treatments; alternative therapies; and aftercare support planning.7
Behavioral therapies may vary somewhat in their approach but different techniques can help you to better understand the issues which may have led to addiction in the first place and help motivate you to change your behaviors and better manage triggers.7 Most treatment programs will encourage participation with peer support groups while in treatment and afterwards. Regular attendance of group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or other mutual support meetings can help those in recovery maintain sobriety in the longer-term.7
Talk to Someone About Alcoholism Treatment
If you’re ready to seek treatment for alcoholism or would like to know more about your treatment options, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of AAC, a nationwide provider of treatment facilities focused on providing hope and recovery for those in need.
We are dedicated to making alcoholism treatment accessible to every person in need and accept many forms of insurance or can help you facilitate payment arrangements. Don’t let cost keep you from getting the help you need.
Our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to discuss your options and all calls are 100% confidential. Fill out the form below to see if your insurance covers treatment within an AAC facility now.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Alcohol poisoning deaths.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol use and your health.
. MedlinePlus. (2020). Blood alcohol level.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding the dangers of alcohol overdose.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (5th ed.), 491-492.
. National Institute of Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide.