Few people would admit to willingly swallowing large doses of poison. Yet one in six U.S. adults do exactly that—often multiple times a week—by consuming at least 4–5 alcoholic drinks in one sitting. Alcohol is rarely thought of as poisonous, but it is a drug with depressant effects, and any drug becomes a poison when taken in large amounts. Alcohol poisoning kills over 2,000 people in the United States every year, the majority of them men between ages 35 and 64. (While habitual binge drinking is more common among younger men, it often lays the groundwork for dangerous long-term habits, if not outright alcohol addiction.)
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Not every alcohol intoxication is an alcohol poisoning. The effects of alcohol accumulate in predictable stages (numbered here for ease of understanding, not according to any official medical statement). Which stage any individual drinker will reach depends on how much alcohol is consumed; how quickly it is consumed; and the drinker’s physical condition, age, gender, and body type.
Stage 1: Slight reductions in normal inhibitions and reaction times. No obvious change in drinker’s normal functioning.
Stage 2: Drinker becomes “tipsy,” laughs easily and talks carelessly. Perceptible effects on normal physical coordination.
Stage 3: Speech becomes slurred, poor coordination pronounced. Drinker may vomit or act out bursts of violent emotion.
Stage 4: Mental and physical functioning become obviously sluggish. Increased vomiting or incontinence may occur.
Stage 5: Alcohol poisoning. Skin turns blue, becomes cold and clammy to the touch. Breathing slows to fewer than eight sporadic breaths per minute. Pulse is slow and weak. Drinker often loses consciousness (sometimes becoming comatose), and is at high risk for seizures, choking on their own vomit, and complete stoppage of vital functions.
How to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning
The surest way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to avoid alcohol completely. While this isn’t the sole option for everyone, it’s definitely advisable if:
- Any of your close relatives have a history of alcoholism
- You’re planning to drive anywhere within the next several hours (even normally safe alcohol levels can affect judgment sufficiently to constitute risk at high speeds, in heavy traffic, at night, or during inclement weather)
- You’re taking any prescribed or over-the-counter medication that has sedative effects, and/or states on its label, “Do Not Take With Alcohol”
Be aware, also, of the possibility of unintentionally ingesting alcohol. Keep any products containing alcohol (these can include mouthwash and even cleaning products) out of the reach of children. Watch out for beverages with unknown alcohol content. And if you’re at a party or restaurant and someone “hospitably” refills your half-empty wine glass, better to put the whole drink aside than risk underestimating the total amount.
What to Do in Case of Alcohol Poisoning
If you even suspect that someone has consumed alcohol to the point of poisoning, call for emergency medical help immediately. Don’t let fear of “getting them in trouble” keep you from prompt action: this could be a matter of life and death.
If the patient is conscious, help them into a sitting position on the ground or floor. Keep them warm, calm, and (if they’re capable of swallowing water) hydrated until help arrives. Do not try to “help them sober up” with exercise or a cold shower: this can easily make things worse (and doesn’t work, even at lower intoxication levels).
If they pass out, minimize choking risk by moving them into a side-lying position, with face clear of the ground and limbs positioned to prevent rolling. Stay ready to administer rescue breathing or other first aid if necessary. When medics arrive, be prepared to provide details on how much alcohol was consumed, and on medical history (including drinking habits) if possible.
Hospital-level alcohol poisoning treatment involves intravenous hydration, stomach pumping, filtering alcohol from the blood—and, likely, evaluating the patient for alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). If alcoholism is diagnosed and/or binge drinking is habitual, further medical treatment, with therapy, will be recommended to prevent future occurrences of alcohol poisoning and other drinking-related problems.
Find Freedom from Alcohol Addiction
Intoxication, even at the alcohol-poisoning level, is a one-time unpleasant experience for some people. For many others, though, frequent episodes are a symptom of being addicted to alcohol—in which case the long-term consequences of regular intake may be lethal. Professional medical help is essential to recovery. Lakeside-Milam is the largest treatment center in the Pacific Northwest: contact us to learn how you can detox from alcohol dependence and reclaim your long-term health.
- “Alcohol Poisoning.” (Mayo Clinic)
- “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- “Binge Drinking.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)