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What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning? Spot the Signs To Stay Safe

Published:
June 20, 2023
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23 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.
June 20, 2023
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23 min read
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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.
June 20, 2023
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23 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.
June 20, 2023
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23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 20, 2023
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23 min read

It’s a story we hear all too often — a fun evening takes a dangerous turn when drinking goes too far. Alcohol poisoning, a dangerous consequence of binge-drinking, is a silent epidemic. According to the CDC, an average of six people die from alcohol poisoning daily in the United States! Shockingly, 76% of those who die are adults aged 35 to 64, dispelling the myth that alcohol poisoning predominantly affects younger age groups.

But how can we tell when a fun evening turns deadly? And what are the signs of alcohol poisoning? Let's arm ourselves with the science behind alcohol poisoning.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

First things first: let's demystify the term "alcohol poisoning." It's more than just a terrible hangover or a regrettable karaoke performance. Alcohol poisoning is a severe — and sometimes deadly — consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time.

The Science of Alcohol Poisoning

As we drink alcohol, it gets absorbed into our bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. Once alcohol is in our bloodstream, it circulates throughout our body, affecting our central nervous system, which controls virtually all body functions. The concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream is often referred to as blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The higher the BAC, the more impaired we get.

The liver, responsible for processing and breaking down alcohol, gets to work as soon as booze enters the body. However, it can only go so fast — since we process alcohol at a rate of roughly one standard drink per hour (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits), when we drink too much too quickly, our liver can't keep up. As a result, alcohol builds up in our bloodstream and shuts down areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control. This is alcohol poisoning, and it's as serious as it sounds.

Sobering Stats

It's vital to back up our understanding of alcohol poisoning with current statistics that highlight just how serious this issue actually is. The following data underscore the urgent need for awareness and prevention:

Spotting the Symptoms

Which of the following are alcohol poisoning symptoms? Confusion? Vomiting? Seizures? Well, it’s all three — and many more. 

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning aren't always easy to recognize, especially when we're in the throes of a good time. Here are the ones we need to look out for.

Symptom 1: Confusion or Stupor

When someone drinks too much, they might seem confused or enter into a stupor. This symptom goes beyond feeling momentarily disoriented and can manifest as genuine difficulty in recalling one’s whereabouts and recent actions or maintaining basic conversation. With cognitive abilities impaired, it gets hard to think clearly or make sensible decisions. 

As one of the early warning signs of alcohol poisoning, confusion should not be taken lightly. If someone you know begins acting this way, it's essential to keep a close eye on them and ensure they are safe — especially since there’s a risk of permanent brain damage down the road, unless we dial back our drinking in time!

Symptom 2: Vomiting

Many of us associate vomiting with drinking excessively or having a bad hangover. While this is often the case, consistent vomiting, especially when someone is semi-conscious or unconscious, can be a tell-tale sign of alcohol poisoning. 

While vomiting might seem like a good way for the body to rid itself of the alcohol, it raises the risk of choking if the person loses consciousness or becomes semi-conscious, which might be fatal if not addressed promptly. As a result, it's crucial not to assume that someone will "sleep it off" if they're vomiting after having a few too many.

Symptom 3: Seizures

Excessive alcohol consumption can drastically affect the body's regular functions, one of which is urine production (which accounts for all of those urgent bathroom trips). The dehydration that happens as a result can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes, which are essential for muscle function — including the muscles responsible for breathing and other vital functions. 

This imbalance, in turn, can lead to seizures — one of the more severe symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Seizures can cause injury or indicate that the person's body is responding very adversely to the alcohol intake.

Symptom 4: Slow or Irregular Breathing

If someone is breathing fewer than eight times a minute or has gaps of ten or more seconds between breaths, that's a cause for alarm. Respiratory problems can emerge as a direct result of excessive alcohol intake. 

Breathing irregularities of this magnitude are clear indicators of alcohol poisoning. Such irregularities can decrease the amount of oxygen reaching the brain, causing further complications.

Symptom 5: Blue-Tinged or Pale Skin

Another symptom to look out for is a change in skin color, especially if it turns blue or pale. This color shift indicates disrupted circulation due to alcohol, meaning vital organs might not be getting enough oxygen-rich blood, which can be lethal.

Symptom 6: Low Body Temperature (Hypothermia)

While it might seem counterintuitive given that alcohol can make us feel warm, excessive drinking can lower the body's core temperature, potentially leading to hypothermia. 

Alcohol expands blood vessels, making us feel warm initially. However, as blood alcohol concentration increases, it can interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature and cause a significant drop.

This drop in temperature, combined with other symptoms, can quickly put us in danger by leading to hypothermia. If someone has been drinking heavily and feels unusually cold, immediate medical attention should be sought.

Symptom 7: Unconsciousness or Inability To Wake Up

One of the most alarming symptoms of alcohol poisoning is unconsciousness or the inability to be roused. Passing out after heavy drinking isn't just a deep sleep — it might be a sign of a dangerous level of alcohol in the bloodstream. 

If someone passes out from drinking and you can't wake them, it's not a joke — it's an emergency. It's vital to recognize this isn't a mere drunken nap. If someone can't be awakened after drinking too much, call for help right away!

Who Is at Risk?

While anyone can experience alcohol poisoning after consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short time, some groups are more susceptible than others. Along with knowing the symptoms, recognizing the high-risk groups can lead to better preventive measures and a deeper understanding of the social dynamics surrounding alcohol consumption. Here's a breakdown:

  • Binge drinkers. The practice of consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short timeframe — often defined as drinking five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks for women — puts people at a significant risk for alcohol poisoning.
  • College students and younger adults. Folks between ages 18-24 often engage in risky drinking behaviors due to peer pressure, newfound freedoms, or social norms prevalent in college or university environments. Academic stress can also cause some to turn to alcohol as a way to relax and cope with pressure.
  • People with chronic alcohol use disorder. Even if they drink regularly, those suffering from alcohol addiction or dependency can still succumb to alcohol poisoning if they consume a particularly large amount in a short period. In this case, “practice” doesn’t “make perfect.”
  • People on certain medications. Some medications can increase the effects of alcohol, or interfere with the liver's ability to process it. Those on medications, especially those that interact negatively with alcohol, should be extra cautious.
  • Those with certain medical conditions. Those with liver diseases, such as cirrhosis or hepatitis, have a reduced capacity to process alcohol, making them more susceptible to its harmful effects. Similarly, those with certain metabolic and autoimmune disorders can be at higher risk.
  • Children and teens. Adolescents, due to their lack of experience, curiosity, or a desire to experiment, might be more likely to overdo it. Also, since their bodies are smaller and not yet fully developed, it takes far less alcohol to do harm. Any alcohol consumption in children is dangerous. 
  • Previous survivors of alcohol poisoning. Someone who has previously experienced alcohol poisoning might have an increased risk due to potential liver damage or other underlying health issues resulting from the initial episode. 
  • People combining alcohol with illicit drugs. Combining alcohol with other substances — especially depressants — can increase the risk of respiratory failure, a major factor in many alcohol poisoning deaths.
  • Genetically predisposed people. Some studies suggest that genetics can play a role in how efficiently our bodies metabolize alcohol. Those with slower metabolic rates might be at higher risk.
  • Drinkers with high tolerance levels. Paradoxically, having a high tolerance to alcohol doesn't protect against alcohol poisoning. While someone might drink more without slurring or stumbling as the night goes on, the risk of poisoning remains.

What Can We Do?

As much as we all love a good time, it's vital to keep an eye out for the symptoms of alcohol poisoning in ourselves and others. If any of these signs are present, it's crucial to seek medical help immediately. Don't wait for all the symptoms to show, because by then, it could be too late.

Here’s what to do If someone around you is exhibiting symptoms of alcohol poisoning:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number — immediately! This isn't the time to worry about overreacting: it's better to be safe than sorry. Remember, this can be life-threatening. Your swift actions can make all the difference!
  • While waiting for medical assistance, keep the person awake if possible, and try to get them to sit up. If they're unconscious or semi-conscious, roll them onto their side to prevent choking.
  • Never leave an alcohol-poisoned person alone. Your caring presence is crucial! And remember, you're doing the right thing. There's no shame in seeking help when it's needed.

Looking Out for Ourselves

As we navigate our way towards healthier drinking habits, knowing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning isn't just about looking out for others — it's about looking out for ourselves, too. It’s important to examine our overall drinking patterns so that we can see if we’re veering into the danger zone. Binge drinking is a red flag, as are blackouts. Be proactive in taking steps to take care of your health:

  • Diversify your drinks. Why not try lighter alcoholic beverages? It's a great way to discover new favorites. Or better yet, go for a mocktail!
  • Set clear limits. Establishing a drink limit before attending events can help maintain control.
  • Start a mindful drinking journal. Note the number of drinks you have and how you felt after each occasion. This practice helps you become more aware of your consumption patterns and its impact on your mood and body.
  • “One for one” rule. For every alcoholic drink you have, follow it with a full glass of water. Not only does this help with potential hangovers, but it also ensures you drink alcohol at a slower pace.
  • Know your labels. Take time to read and understand drink labels. Look out for alcoholic content and familiarize yourself with terms. It's not just about quantity but also the quality of what you're consuming.
  • Seek support. If you're aiming to reduce or quit, inform your close friends and family about your decision. They can provide a supportive environment and even join you in your challenges.

Research shows that taking steps to manage our alcohol consumption is beneficial for both our mental and physical health. Even modest reductions in alcohol intake could lead to significant improvements in overall health and quality of life.

For those of us looking to cut back or quit, there are many strategies and resources available. These range from drinking less potent alcoholic beverages and setting consumption limits to seeking help from professionals and support groups.

Spread the Word

It's a sobering thought that something as seemingly innocent as a few extra drinks could lead to alcohol poisoning. But, with a firm grasp of the science and armed with the knowledge of its symptoms, we're in a much better position to protect ourselves and those around us.

As we continue our journey towards healthier drinking habits, it's important to remember that there's a whole community of us out there, and we're all in this together. The more we understand alcohol poisoning, the better equipped we are to navigate a potentially dangerous situation if it comes up. Let's continue the conversation, support one another, and celebrate our health!

Summary FAQs

1. What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that arises from consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period. It occurs when alcohol accumulates in the bloodstream faster than the liver can process it, shutting down areas of the brain that control essential life-support functions.

2. What are the main symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

The key symptoms include confusion or stupor, vomiting, seizures, slow or irregular breathing, blue-tinged or pale skin, low body temperature (hypothermia), and unconsciousness or inability to wake up.

3. Why is unconsciousness or the inability to wake up after heavy drinking so concerning?

It's not merely a deep sleep — unconsciousness may indicate a dangerously high level of alcohol in the bloodstream and should be treated as a medical emergency.

4. How does alcohol affect the body's temperature?

Excessive drinking can lead to a drop in the body's core temperature, potentially resulting in hypothermia, despite the misconception that alcohol warms you up.

5. What immediate steps should be taken if someone shows signs of alcohol poisoning?

Call 911 or your local emergency number. While waiting for medical help, try to keep the person awake and sitting up. If unconscious, roll them onto their side to prevent choking. Always stay with them, ensuring they're not left alone.

6. Is vomiting after heavy drinking a sign of a bad hangover or alcohol poisoning?

While vomiting can be associated with hangovers, consistent vomiting, especially when someone is semi-conscious or unconscious, is a  sign of severe alcohol poisoning.

7. How can we avoid the risk of alcohol poisoning and ensure healthier drinking habits?

Awareness of alcohol poisoning symptoms and monitoring overall drinking patterns are crucial. Binge drinking and experiencing blackouts are red flags. It's advisable to manage alcohol consumption and consider strategies such as setting drink limits or seeking professional help and support groups.

Ready To Revamp Your Relationship With Alcohol?

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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