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How Long Does It Take To Recover From Alcohol Poisoning?

Published:
August 11, 2023
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33 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 11, 2023
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33 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
August 11, 2023
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33 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
August 11, 2023
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33 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
August 11, 2023
·
33 min read

Alcohol poisoning isn’t exactly a topic you'd chat about over a cup of coffee, but understanding it can be a real eye-opener. There’s no way to sugar coat this truth: alcohol poisoning — which happens when someone drinks so much alcohol in a short period that their body struggles to process it — is as serious as it gets. This massive intake can cause critical areas in the brain to shut down, leading to unconsciousness, coma, or even death.

According to the NIAAA, excessive alcohol use claims the lives of around 178,000 people in the United States every year. As for alcohol poisoning in particular, a total of approximately 2,200 Americans die every year — around 6 deaths per day.

The body is incredibly resilient, however, so it's generally possible to recover. But how long do alcohol poisoning effects last? What are the most common alcohol poisoning symptoms? And how can you treat alcohol poisoning at home? Let’s find out!

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

A person holding a glass of alcohol

According to the NHS, “Alcohol poisoning can happen when you drink alcohol quicker than your body can process it. It can make you seriously ill and you may need to go to hospital for treatment.”

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. If you suspect you or someone you are with is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call emergency services immediately.

So what does alcohol poisoning look like?

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

Alcohol poisoning is more than just an extreme hangover — it's a critical condition that occurs when large amounts of alcohol are consumed in a short period. Alcohol is a toxin, and the liver works tirelessly to break it down and remove it as fast as possible. However, this hard-working organ can only process around one standard drink per hour. If we’ve consumed more than that, it can get overwhelmed.

Here's what happens to the body as a result:

  • Blood alcohol concentration skyrockets. Consuming large quantities of alcohol overwhelms the liver, leading to a rapid increase in BAC. This can severely impact various body functions.
  • Central nervous system gets depressed. As a depressant, alcohol slows down the brain's functions. In cases of alcohol poisoning, this sudden drop can affect our breathing, heart rate, and even our gag reflex, which can lead to choking.
  • Body temperature drops. Alcohol dilates blood vessels, causing heat to escape from the body's surface. In severe cases, this effect may lead to hypothermia.
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance occurs. Alcohol increases urine production, leading to dehydration. This loss of fluids and essential minerals can cause dizziness, seizures, and other complications.
  • Potential damage to organs takes place. The liver, pancreas, and other organs might suffer damage due to alcohol’s toxic effects.
  • Risk of choking is high. The impaired gag reflex increases the risk of choking on vomit, which can lead to pneumonia or death if it’s aspirated (inhaled into the lungs).
  • Judgment and coordination are impaired. Even before reaching the point of poisoning, alcohol can affect judgment, leading to risky behavior. The impaired coordination and confusion that accompany alcohol poisoning can further add to the danger.

How Much Is Too Much?

The quantity of drinks that can lead to alcohol poisoning varies widely from person to person, but there are some general guidelines to give you an idea. According to NIAAA, alcohol poisoning often occurs when a person's BAC reaches 0.30% or higher. At this level, the body's vital functions, such as heart rate and respiration, are severely compromised. A BAC of 0.40% or higher, in turn, can be fatal.

Binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more for men in about two hours, significantly increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. In fact, over 40% of deaths associated with alcohol poisoning involve binge drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Alcohol Poisoning Taking Action

What To Do If You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning

First things first: because alcohol poisoning is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition, immediate medical help is the priority. In the meantime, here’s a list of steps to take if you suspect someone might have alcohol poisoning:

  • Call emergency services. Dial your local emergency number immediately. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency, and professional medical treatment is crucial.
  • Stay with the person. If the person is conscious, try to keep them awake and engaged in conversation. If they're unconscious or semi-conscious, lay them on their side to prevent choking if they vomit.
  • Monitor symptoms. Keep an eye on the person's breathing, skin color, and other symptoms. Provide this information to emergency services when they arrive.
  • Avoid giving food, drink, or medication. Don't try to "sober them up" with coffee, food, or any other substances. These can complicate the situation.
  • Keep calm. Stay as calm as possible, and follow the instructions of the emergency operator until professional medical assistance arrives.
  • Collect information if possible. If you know what and how much the person has consumed, share this information with medical professionals, as it may help with treatment.
  • Start CPR if necessary. If the person stops breathing, you may need to perform CPR if you're trained to do so. Follow the emergency operator's instructions carefully and stay with the person until qualified assistance arrives.

These steps are general guidelines — it's vital to call emergency services and follow their specific instructions. Every situation is unique, and professional medical responders will provide the most appropriate care and treatment.

What if you are the one experiencing alcohol poisoning? Keep these tips in mind:

  • Don’t wait. Alcohol poisoning can progress rapidly. If you even suspect alcohol poisoning, even if you're unsure, err on the side of caution and call for help.
  • Stay awake and alert. Keep moving, talking, or walking if possible. This can help maintain vital functions such as breathing.
  • Do not drink more alcohol. There’s a myth out there that more alcohol can help you "sober up,” but that’s a dangerous misconception. Drinking more can make things a lot worse.
  • Turn on your side. If you feel nauseous, lie on your side to prevent choking in case of vomiting. Keeping your airway clear is crucial.
  • Stay calm. Panic can exacerbate the situation. Focus on your breathing and try to remain as calm as possible while waiting for professional help.
  • Share information. If you have any information about the quantity and type of alcohol consumed, share it with the medical professionals when they arrive. This can help them make a more accurate assessment.

Timeline for Recovery: How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?

Ah, that’s the million-dollar question! When it comes to alcohol poisoning, the recovery timeline can vary significantly depending on the individual and the severity of the poisoning. Some people might start feeling better in a few hours or a day after medical treatment, while for others, it might take several days. Here are some factors that might influence the duration of alcohol poisoning:

  • Amount of alcohol. The more we had to drink, the longer the timeline of recovery. The rate at which we drank also makes a difference; chugging (as opposed to sipping) overwhelms our system much more quickly, increasing the likelihood of damage.
  • Age. The older we are, the harder it is for our body to process large quantities of booze.
  • Body weight and composition. Generally, those with lower body weight or a higher percentage of body fat experience the effects of alcohol more intensely and for a longer time.
  • Sex. Women often metabolize alcohol more slowly than men due to differences in body composition and levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body. This can make alcohol poisoning more severe and longer-lasting.
  • Food intake. How much we’ve eaten can make a big difference, since eating slows down alcohol absorption.  
  • Overall health. The more compromised our overall health is, the harder it is to recover.

During recovery, your liver is playing catch-up. Meanwhile, other organs that have been affected, such as your brain and nervous system, are also trying to revert to their normal functions. It's pretty amazing teamwork!

How long does alcohol poisoning last? Let’s take a more detailed look at what the road to recovery might entail.

First 6-12 Hours: Emergency Treatment

This phase often requires medical intervention — healthcare professionals might provide breathing support, fluids, and other necessary treatments to stabilize the body. During this period, the person is likely unable to care for themselves. The focus is on eliminating the alcohol from the bloodstream and maintaining vital functions such as breathing and heart rate.

When someone is admitted to the hospital with suspected alcohol poisoning, the first few hours are crucial. Here’s what happens during this initial phase:

  • Immediate assessment. Doctors first assess the patient's vitals, including blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature. Blood tests may be conducted to measure the blood alcohol concentration and determine any other complications.
  • Supportive care. This involves providing the patient with oxygen, intravenous fluids, and sometimes glucose and vitamins to help prevent serious complications. B-complex vitamins are easily depleted by alcohol and are often used to supplement emergency care and prevent brain damage.
  • Medications. Certain medications may be provided to manage heart rate, stabilize blood pressure, prevent seizures, and keep the patient calm. The most commonly used medication is fomepizole, which inhibits the enzymes that break alcohol down into its toxic metabolites. This flattens the curve and prevents the overwhelming buildup of the nastiest and most damaging alcohol metabolites.
  • Breathing support. For patients having difficulty breathing or those whose breathing becomes shallow, physicians might use a breathing tube or a ventilator to make sure they’re getting enough oxygen.

Keep in mind that in these first few hours, the patient might not be out of danger even if they regain consciousness. Their BAC can continue to rise, worsening their symptoms.

A common misconception perpetuated by movies and rumors is that those suffering alcohol poisoning will have their stomach pumped in the hospital. The idea is to medically force the stomach to empty itself through regurgitation as a means of removing a toxin from the body. Stomach pumping is very rarely used, and almost never used for alcohol poisoning. The best course of action is to simply support the body while it does its work.

This emergency treatment phase focuses on stabilizing the patient, keeping them safe, and mitigating the immediate dangers of the poisoning. Once they’re stabilized, the next phase of the recovery can begin.

Important Side Note: What Happens If Medical Treatment Isn’t Provided?

While we've emphasized the crucial role of professional medical assistance in alcohol poisoning cases, it's important to keep in mind that there might be situations when immediate access to emergency services is limited or avoided. It’s all too common for underage drinkers to avoid getting medical help to prevent legal or parental consequences of their consumption. Unfortunately, this decision can have a tragic outcome with even graver consequences. If medical help is accessible, it’s imperative to seek it — for the safety of the person affected.

  • Escalating danger. Without medical intervention, the effects of alcohol poisoning can escalate rapidly as blood alcohol concentration (BAC) continues to rise. The person may start to experience shallow heart rate, low oxygen, seizure, coma, respiratory arrest, or even death.
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. There’s often extreme dehydration due to loss of fluids and essential minerals that get flushed out of the body. Dehydration can keep getting worse, causing dizziness, seizures, and other complications.
  • Risk of aspiration. The impaired gag reflex in alcohol poisoning increases the risk of choking on vomit, which can be life-threatening if the vomit is inhaled into the lungs.
  • Potential organ damage. The liver, pancreas, and brain are at risk of severe damage due to alcohol's toxic effects and ability to induce hypoxia (low blood oxygen). 
  • Longer recovery. It could take a lot longer to recover without medical help. The risk of complications, both immediate and long-term, becomes greater.

It's crucial to reiterate that alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency, and seeking immediate professional help is the best course of action. If necessary, there are still things we can do to support someone experiencing this serious condition. If we want to know how to treat alcohol poisoning at home, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Monitor closely. Try to keep the person awake if possible. Do not leave the person alone. Help them to remain on their side with their head facing to the side. It’s likely that they will vomit and be unable to move themselves to clear the vomit from their mouth. By keeping them on their side, you can prevent them aspirating the vomit into the lungs, which can be painful, damaging, or possibly deadly if they choke.

  • Call emergency services. If you have phone access, call emergency services. This will allow them to allocate resources as soon as they are available. They will stay on the phone to guide you through the process and provide real-time advice. If you don’t have luck with government resources (such as 911 in the U.S.) you can try a poison control center.
  • Perform CPR if necessary. Keep a close eye on the person's breathing and heart rate — you might need to perform CPR if you're trained to do so. Avoid providing CPR if you are not trained, as you can make matters worse. Emergency personnel can help you over the phone, and if you have internet access, you can also follow along with videos that will guide you.
  • Prevent choking. If the person vomits, turn them on their side to avoid choking. Clear their airway as best as you can. If they’re awake, you can guide them through some slow, rhythmic breathing to keep their airway open.
  • Hydrate with caution. If possible, try to give them some water to keep dehydration from getting worse.

Next 12-48 Hours Monitoring and Care

Even after the initial danger of the first 6-12 hours, the body still has a lot of work to do, and the next 12-48 hours can be considered a kind of "reset" period.

Depending on the severity, patients may remain hospitalized for observation. They might experience nausea or dehydration, and their vital signs may be irregular, which needs careful management.

Here’s what these two days may look like:

  • Observation. Hospitals or clinics typically keep patients under close watch during this period. The body's own repair system is working hard, and medical staff want to catch any glitches right away.
  • Rehydration. Since dehydration is a common result of alcohol poisoning, we might still need fluids to rehydrate the body and restore vital electrolyte balances.
  • Nutritional support. Alcohol can play havoc with the nutrients in the body, so we might be given vitamins and nutrients — either through an IV or in the form of supplements — to help the body regain its strength.
  • Mental health check. It's not just about the physical side of things. Alcohol poisoning can be traumatic, so healthcare professionals might check how we’re doing emotionally and mentally, ensuring we have the support we need.
  • Symptom management. Nausea, headaches, or even tremors can linger. During these 12-48 hours, medical staff will work to alleviate these symptoms, making the recovery process a tad more comfortable.
  • Education. Knowledge is power! Medical professionals might provide information or resources about alcohol consumption, its risks, and how to recognize warning signs in the future. It’s a gentle nudge towards safer choices down the road.

Remember, everyone's body and experience with alcohol poisoning is unique. Some bounce back more quickly, while others need a bit more time and care. Either way, this period is all about giving the body its best chance to mend and reset.

While the initial hours post-alcohol poisoning are absolutely critical, the following days are just as important in setting us on the path to full recovery. The body is an amazing machine, and with the right care, it has a fantastic ability to heal and bounce back!

1-2 Days After Treatment: Physical Symptoms Start To Ease

Phew! As the sun rises on a new day post-treatment, the world feels a little brighter and less daunting. The intense and alarming symptoms of alcohol poisoning start to recede, and we’re likely to experience reduced confusion, improved hydration, and stabilized vital signs. Although we might not feel entirely like our old selves yet, there's noticeable progress:

  • Feeling more "you." Those foggy thoughts? The debilitating weakness? They start to fade away! The body begins to find its equilibrium, and mentally, things start to become clearer. Our discomfort has been turned down a notch or two.
  • Feeling steadier. Dizziness and disorientation — common side-effects of alcohol poisoning— tend to subside. We’re feeling more stable and grounded.
  • Gastro relief. Nausea and vomiting subside, and our appetite starts to return. Get ready to nourish yourself with some good food!
  • Hydration levels up. With all the fluids and care from the past days, dehydration is now on the retreat. Our skin might feel better, and those pesky headaches will likely lessen.
  • Restful sleep. Sleep patterns, often disrupted by alcohol poisoning, start to normalize — a sign that our body and brain are on the mend.
  • Emotional ups and downs. Even though physical symptoms are easing, our emotions might be rollercoastering up and down. Relief, embarrassment, anxiety, or gratitude — it’s normal to experience a mix of feelings, and it’s essential to communicate and not bottle them up.

Progress during this phase is a relief, signaling that the worst is over. But remember, even as physical symptoms subside, the body and mind still need care and attention. Taking it easy, continuing to hydrate, and seeking emotional support are still top priorities.

In a nutshell, this phase is a gentle reminder of the body's resilience and its remarkable ability to rebound. But, as always, patience is key — healing is a journey, and every step forward is a victory.

The Following Week: Rest and Rehydration

We’ve navigated the choppy waters of the initial aftermath of alcohol poisoning and are starting to feel more like ourselves. But now comes an equally important phase: the following week. Think of this period as the "rebuilding phase."

As the body continues to flush out the alcohol, rest and rehydration are crucial. Balanced meals and adequate fluids can expedite our physical healing. However, the experience may leave us anxious or depressed, so we might need emotional support from friends, family, or professionals.

Let’s take a closer look:

  • Deep rest. While we might feel substantially better, the body has been through a lot. It's crucial to give ourselves permission to rest. This isn’t just about sleep (though that’s super important) — it's also about reducing stress, avoiding strenuous activity, and letting the body do its repair work.
  • Hydration. After an episode of alcohol poisoning, the body tries to compensate for lost hydration. Continue drinking plenty of water throughout the day to flush out any lingering toxins and support every cell in your body.
  • Nutrition matters. After such a tumultuous event, the body needs the right nutrients to rebuild. Focus on balanced meals that include proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals — such as fruits and veggies — are our best bets right now.
  • Listen to your body. Everyone's recovery is unique. If you feel fatigued or notice any lingering symptoms, don't brush them off. It might be your body’s way of saying, "Hey, take it easy, we’re still mending here!"
  • Mind over matter. Physical recovery is just one side of the coin — mentally, there’s still a lot to process. Whether through journaling, chatting with a friend, or seeking professional help, make sure you address any emotional or psychological aftereffects.
  • Limit alcohol intake. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth noting. Giving the body a break from alcohol not only reduces the risk of another episode but also allows our organs — especially the liver — some much-needed recovery time.
  • Educate yourself. Consider this episode a learning experience. Maybe now's the time to learn more about safe drinking limits, understand your body’s signals, or explore the reasons behind your drinking habits.

The week after an episode of alcohol poisoning is like hitting the reset button. It's about nurturing ourselves, understanding what happened, and laying the groundwork for healthier choices in the future. Sure, it takes patience and a bit of introspection, but with each passing day, we’re stepping into a healthier, more informed version of ourselves.

Keep in mind that we've only been discussing recovery from the immediate effects of acute alcohol poisoning. For people who have repeatedly been exposed to large quantities of alcohol, recovery can take much longer due to potential long-term health complications, such as liver disease or brain damage.

Rebuilding Your Life 

A bout of alcohol poisoning can often be a turning point that leads us to reevaluate our relationship with alcohol. Support groups, counseling, or therapy can help us understand the underlying issues that led us to excessive drinking as we develop healthier habits. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Rethink your drink. Explore alcohol-free options at social events, like mocktails that mimic the experience of drinking without alcohol’s side effects.
  • Create an alcohol-free environment. Get rid of all the alcohol in your home. It might seem drastic, but it's a powerful step towards recovery and creates a temptation-free environment for your body to continue recovering.
  • Seek support. Join a local or online support group. You're not alone in this journey, and sharing experiences with others going through similar challenges can help. The Reframe forum is a great resource and the largest online community of sober and sober-curious people. 
  • Make lifestyle changes. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and a good sleep schedule make a world of difference in your recovery journey.
  • Work with professionals. Consider seeking professional help, such as therapy or counseling. Professionals can give you techniques to manage cravings and handle difficult situations, and help you explore any underlying mental health concerns.

Alcohol poisoning is no joke, but recovery is possible! It might require patience, teamwork, and a bit of strategy. But the prize — a healthier, happier life — is absolutely worth it!

Summary FAQs

1. What is alcohol poisoning, and how is it different from a hangover?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person consumes an excessive amount of alcohol in a short time, overwhelming the body's ability to process it. It's much more severe than a typical hangover, as it can lead to critical health issues, including unconsciousness or even death.

2. What should I do if I suspect someone has alcohol poisoning?

If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, it's crucial to call emergency services immediately. While waiting for professional help, stay with the person, monitor their breathing and vital signs, and do not try to "sober them up" with food or drinks.

3. What happens during the first 6-12 hours after alcohol poisoning treatment?

During this critical phase, medical professionals focus on stabilizing the patient. This may involve providing oxygen, fluids, and other necessary treatments to eliminate alcohol from the bloodstream and maintain vital functions.

4. What can I expect during the next 12-48 hours following treatment?

The next phase involves careful monitoring and care. Patients receive fluids to rehydrate, nutritional support, and management of any lingering symptoms such as nausea. Mental health is also addressed during this time.

5. How soon do physical symptoms start to ease after alcohol poisoning treatment?

One to two days after treatment, physical symptoms typically start to improve. You'll likely experience reduced confusion, improved hydration, and stabilized vital signs.

6. What should I focus on during the week after alcohol poisoning treatment?

In the week following treatment, prioritize rest, hydration, and proper nutrition. Allow your body to recover, listen to its signals, and address any emotional or psychological aspects of your recovery.

7. How can I prevent future episodes of alcohol poisoning and make healthier choices?

To prevent future episodes, consider limiting your alcohol intake, educating yourself about safe drinking limits, and exploring the reasons behind your drinking habits. Building a support network and seeking professional help if needed can also contribute to healthier choices.

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