Alcohol Poisoning: How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

Last Updated: April 27, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Acute intoxication is more common than most people realize. Sometimes an individual can lose control and cannot stop after a drink or two. Yet, binge drinking is not the solution to any problem. In fact, binge-drinking is an easy path to alcohol poisoning, and the effects of this can vary from an ER visit to real life-threatening situations. Intoxication can particularly be life-threatening when treatment is not administered urgently, so how much alcohol is too much? Take a look at the dangers of ethanol abuse, alcohol poisoning symptoms, and how an ethanol overdose can be treated.

Alcohol Poisoning Overview

Alcohol intoxication is perhaps the most dangerous consequence of binge drinking. Alcohol poisoning is a situation that occurs as a result of very high levels of alcohol in the body within a short time, shutting down critical parts of the brain that are in charge of the heart rate, body temperature, and breathing.

At high doses, alcoholic drinks are potent depressants of the central nervous system. The effects of heavy drinking are severe, including alarming withdrawal symptoms. A person can become intoxicated by consuming a large amount in a short time. But, there is no minimum number of drinks that can cause alcohol intoxication.

More often than not, the people affected the most are men, and patients usually fall within the age range of 35-64 years old. In 30% of these poisoning-related deaths, there were clear signs of dependence in the patients.

This supports the fact that while alcoholics are more likely to experience poisoning in this manner, a person that only drinks occasionally can also get poisoned from one binge-drinking session gone wrong.

In reference to binge drinking, the interpretation differs for women from what it means for men. While men need to take up to 5 drinks within a short period to count as binge-drinking, women only need up to 4. On average, US adults who binge-drink take up to 8 drinks within a short period, so it is easy to see how alcohol intoxication is a real problem there.

Woman experience acute alcohol poisoning.

How Does Alcohol Poisoning Occur?

Ethanol overdose happens through overdosing at a deadly level. The sequence of events that leads to acute intoxication is as follows:

  1. A person drinks a lot within a short time.
  2. The liver is unable to metabolize the chemicals and flush them out of the body.
  3. Unmetabolized alcohol enters the bloodstream.
  4. The person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) begins to rise.
  5. The BAC reaches toxic levels, adversely affecting the person’s physiological and mental functions.

The substance is broken down primarily in the liver. However, each person’s body has a limit that can be processed at a time or within a short period. On average, the human body can process up to one ounce in the liver per hour, roughly equivalent to one shot, one beer, or one glass of wine.

When the body ingests more alcohol than it can process at any given time, the rest stays in the bloodstream. This leads to increased BAC (Blood Animal Concentration) levels. With every increased level l in the body at this stage, the substance begins to damage the body systems it encounters.

The early symptoms of alcohol poisoning include mild feelings of warmth and euphoria. Then, moods become more pronounced as the person’s inhibitions begin to fall away. Progressively, senses such as sight, hearing, decision-making, reaction time, balance, and memory start to reduce in effectiveness until they are almost incapable of functioning.

At this stage, the body is unable to handle the alcohol and begins an attempt to purge itself of the substance. First, nausea beings, followed by vomiting and then a total blackout where an individual becomes completely unaware of everything going on around them. At this point, the memory of the experience may even be wholly forgotten by the next day.

Risk Factors For Intoxication

Many risk factors can increase or decrease the likelihood of a person getting intoxicated up to the point of poisoning.

These Include:

  • Bodyweight and type: bigger people absorb the substance slower than smaller people
  • General health status: any pre-existing health issues can trigger a more substantial reaction
  • Drug interactions: taking the substance with other drugs increases risk levels
  • The percentage of alcohol: higher percentages equals a more increased risk
  • The presence/absence of food in the body: having food in the system can slow down the absorption
  • The rate and amount of consumption: drinking quicker can increase the risk of intoxication
  • Tolerance levels: people that have developed higher tolerance levels over time have a reduced risk of intoxication
Group of friends drinking beer.

Signs and Symptoms of Overdose

Drinking excessively leads to many physiological changes in the human body, including:

  • Mental confusion
  • Slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (more than 10 seconds between each breath)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Loss of motor coordination
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Pale skin, sometimes with a bluish tinge
  • Stupor (the person is conscious but unresponsive to touch)
  • Loss of consciousness

Intoxication is a potentially life-threatening condition. Suspected poisoning requires immediate medical attention. It is unacceptable to wait for all the symptoms to manifest or try some home remedies as a cure.

Drunken behavior is sometimes the earliest warning sign of intoxication. In fact, drunkenness is a sure sign that an individual has consumed more alcoholic drinks than the liver can break down. Seek immediate medical attention if one or more of the following symptoms of alcohol poisoning are present in a person who has been drinking excessively:

  • The incoherent or “slurred” speech
  • Difficulty standing or walking
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to make or maintain eye contact

Remove all drinks and prevent the person from ingesting more alcoholic beverages while waiting for medical help to arrive.

Life-Threatening Complications of Acute Alcohol Poisoning

The figures are sobering. There are more than 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States every year. Of these, poisoning or overdosing is responsible for 22,000 lives. In 30 percent of these cases, addiction or alcoholism is the trigger.

Can one die from this? Yes, the health problems caused by acute poisoning can eventually prove fatal. The tragic truth behind the abuse of alcoholic beverages is that it leads to accidents, crime, and ruined families. Unless immediate treatment is provided, poisoning can be fatal or lead to irreversible physical and mental damage.

Life-Threatening Complications of Intoxication Include:

  • Choking: Alcoholic drinks irritate the stomach and cause vomiting. An unconscious person can potentially choke on their vomit.
  • Cessation of breathing: Ingestion of vomit into the lungs can cause a person to stop breathing altogether.
  • Dehydration: Vomiting can quickly lead to severe dehydration, which, in turn, leads to decreased blood pressure and a fast heart rate.
  • Cardiac arrest: A low body temperature, coupled with a decrease in blood pressure, can lead to cardiac arrest.
  • Hypoglycemia: Vomiting can cause blood sugar levels to drop to dangerously low levels. This condition is called hypoglycemia. If glucose is not administered promptly, an individual can slip into a coma. Eventually, it can result in death.
  • Brain damage: Irregular breathing, cardiac arrest, and hypoglycemia can cause irreversible brain damage.
Man suffering from alcohol-induced sick stomach.

Acute Alcohol Poisoning Response

The first thing to do, of course, is to obtain medical help. Call 911 if someone is suspected of having severe acute intoxication from alcoholic beverages.

What to do until the paramedics arrive? Specific actions can backfire and aggravate existing symptoms or trigger new complications. It is essential to be aware of dangerous misconceptions about what to do to avoid them.

Things to Avoid When Dealing With A Case of Alcohol Poisoning

There are a lot of popular misconceptions regarding what to do in these cases. Here are some medically-based points that will help not to make things worse:

  • Do not make one walk around. A person who is drunk has poor control of motor functions. There could be a loss of balance, falls, and injuries.
  • Do not feed an individual.
  • Do not give them any medication.
  • Do not attempt to let the person “sleep it off”.
  • Do not make an individual lie down. If the intoxicated person is awake, do not make them lie down. If vomiting occurs in a supine position, the person can potentially choke.
  • Do not give them coffee to drink. Coffee exacerbates dehydration. Severe dehydration can lead to permanent brain damage.
  • Do not give the person a cold shower. Alcoholic drinks lower body temperature. A cold shower can quickly induce life-threatening hypothermia.
  • Do not induce vomiting. An excessive amount of drinking depresses the gag reflex. If vomiting is induced, it can lead to choking.
  • Do not give more alcohol. This can increase the BAC to dangerous levels.
  • Do not leave an individual alone. As more alcohol from the stomach and intestine is absorbed into the bloodstream, the BAC rises. This happens even if the person has stopped drinking. It is vital to remain vigilant because new symptoms can show up, or existing ones can worsen.

How to Help an Individual with Alcohol Poisoning

Specific actions can help keep the person suffering from acute intoxication safe and comfortable while waiting for professional help:

  • If one is unconscious, put them in the recovery position by gently turning the head to one side to prevent choking.
  • If an individual is awake, make them sit upright to prevent choking if vomiting occurs.
  • Keep them informed about anything you’re going to do before you do it. Acting otherwise may trigger aggressiveness.
  • Try to prevent loss of consciousness. Keep the person awake by talking to them.
  • Keep the person warm. Make sure the body temperature does not fall further.
  • If one is vomiting, roll them onto their side with hands above the head to prevent choking on vomit.
  • Get a warm blanket as it is likely the person will be feeling cold.
  • Give them some water if swallowing is possible. Water helps fight dehydration and aids the body in flushing out toxins. Ensure that an individual is sitting up when they drink water to prevent choking.
  • Stay with the person until medical help arrives. Keep an eye on the intoxicated person to avoid injury.
African American Man Vomiting Into A Bucket.

Alcohol Poisoning Treatment

How to treat the condition? This is best done at a medical facility where the person can be monitored constantly, and symptoms managed promptly.

The Following Treatments May be Administered By Qualified Medical Personnel:

  • Intubation: A tube is inserted into the windpipe through the mouth to remove airway blockages and help with breathing.
  • Intravenous administration of fluids: Water, glucose, and vitamins are given directly into the bloodstream to keep vital signs stable and to provide nutrition.
  • Catheterization: A thin tube called a catheter is inserted into the bladder to drain the urine into an attached bag.
  • Stomach pumping: The stomach is pumped out by passing fluids through a tube fitted to the nose or mouth.
  • Dialysis: In some cases, kidney dialysis is carried out to speed up removing toxins from the body.
  • Close monitoring: Mild symptoms are monitored in a medical setting.
  • Oxygen therapy: Oxygen is administered through either a nasal tube or face mask to ensure the patient does not stop breathing.
  • Vitamins and glucose: To increase blood pressure and prevent seizures.

How To Avoid Poisoning?

The adverse effects of poisoning can be easily prevented with a little awareness and planning. When heading out for a night of drinking, here are some essential things to remember:

  • Keep track of consumption. Remember, not all drinks contain the same amount of alcohol.
  • Pace your drinking with one drink per hour, allowing the body time to process alcoholic beverages.
  • Drink a full glass of water after every one or two drinks. This helps combat dehydration.
  • Stay away from drinking games. It is difficult to monitor the number of alcoholic drinks consumed in this setting.
  • Avoid situations that involve social pressure to drink. In such environments, it is easy to forget the amount and pace at which the beverages are being consumed, creating a dangerous situation
  • Never drink on an empty stomach. Also, make sure to eat healthy while drinking. Snacking is a good way to pace the drinks.
  • Never mix drinks with prescription medications or recreational drugs.

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Page Sources

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: April 27th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.