Alcohol poisoning

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at April 29, 2016
StartDiseasesAlcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is the result of a person consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time. An alcohol overdose can have fatal consequences if not treated immediately.


Definition & Facts

There is a thin line between behavior while drunk and behavioral changes from alcohol poisoning. It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of an alcohol overdose in order to seek prompt medical attention, as it could be a matter of life and death.

Alcohol comes in many forms. Ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, is the term given to alcohol marked for consumption and is found in beverages, cooking products and some medications. Isopropyl alcohol is commonly found in cleaning products, lotions and rubbing alcohol for first aid. Children may accidentally swallow products that contain alcohol and suffer from alcohol poisoning.

Symptoms & Complaints

A person who has alcohol poisoning may display any of the following symptoms:

These symptoms may be accompanied by a strong odor of alcohol indicating that the person is intoxicated. Seek medical treatment as soon as possible. A person who is unconscious and is unable to be roused may be at risk of dying. Someone with alcohol poisoning should not be left alone. It is best to move an unconscious person onto their side with the Bacchus Maneuver so as to prevent them from choking if they should vomit while unconscious.


The biggest and most notable cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking. There are several underlying risk factors that can contribute to the development of alcohol overdose including body weight, whether or not a person has eaten recently, a person's overall health status, their alcohol tolerance level and whether or not drinking is being mixed with illicit drug use.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking patterns are defined by gender and the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed in a short period of time. For men, consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours is considered binge drinking. For women, drinking four or more alcohol-containing beverages in the same time frame is binge drinking.

Fatal alcohol levels can be consumed by an individual before he or she displays symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Although they may have stopped consuming alcoholic beverages, the alcohol that remains in their stomach continues to be digested and enters the bloodstream raising their blood alcohol content. This can lead to more fatal symptoms developing after a person loses consciousness at a later time.

Diagnosis & Tests

A person who has consumed too much alcohol may be physically and mentally unable to determine that they are suffering from an alcohol overdose. It is up to friends and family to recognize the signs above and take action to prevent long-term consequences or death. If a person is determined to have an alcohol overdose it is important for those who are caring for them to know how much the person has had to drink, the overall state of their health, and how long they have been drinking. Providing this information to emergency personnel helps determine a reasonable course of action for the situation.

Once a person who has had an alcohol overdose is receiving medical attention, a doctor may order blood tests and urine tests to determine the exact amount of alcohol in their blood as well as checking for low blood sugar. Observing the person and recognizing the signs of alcohol poisoning is the best way to test and diagnose for it. Once the symptoms of an alcohol overdose are observed it is best to call for help sooner rather than later.

Treatment & Therapy

Alcohol poisoning can quickly become a life-or-death matter and should be treated as a true medical emergency. A person suffering from alcohol intoxication should never be left alone if they are unconscious. Medial treatment may include administering an intravenous saline solution to prevent dehydration, careful observation, oxygen therapy and preventing choking problems.

In cases with younger children having alcohol poisoning, hemodialysis may be used to remove the alcohol and wastes from the blood. If binge drinking has become a regular occurrence for the patient, lifestyle changes may be recommended such as seeking medical and professional intervention for alcohol addiction.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing accidental alcohol poisoning includes taking measures such as storing substances that contain alcohol out of reach of children. Adults who choose to indulge in drinking alcoholic beverages can reduce their risk by drinking with moderation and making sure to eat a meal before they begin to drink.

For some, binge drinking is the result of a chemical dependency. If one is noted to have habitual drinking problems or a loved one fears they may be at risk if their behavior continues, seeking help through a licensed rehabilitation program may help them loosen their dependency on alcohol and avoid the possibility of a future alcohol overdose.

Parents with teenagers should discuss with them the dangers of drinking alcohol as well as how to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning. Teens who have had alcohol poisoning should also get professional help to prevent future occurrences.