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What Is Alcohol Poisoning or Alcohol Overdose?

April 22, 2020
alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose explained

The following blog has been reviewed by an expert. For more information, please see our editorial policy.

Alcohol is no less than poison. You may think of why it is? It may not seem like that, but it is harmful to human beings. Once you get an overdose of alcohol, it may show lethal consequences too because of the extra amount of alcohol in your blood. It will stop your body from working normally and will affect you severely. 

Definition of alcohol poisoning – “An individual will have alcohol poisoning when s(he) has consumed an over/toxic dose of alcohol in a short space of time. The alcohol level in the blood will get so high, and it is considered as alcohol poisoning.”

Alcohol poisoning, also called alcohol overdose, can become a life-threatening event in your life, usually as a result of binge drinking. It is a severe condition which can lead to coma and death. So, it’s important to avoid overdosing on alcohol and know the limit of how much alcohol you are drinking. 

Want to know more about alcohol poisoning? Then continues reading till the end of the guide.

In this guide, you will learn about the following topics:

What Are the Causes of Alcohol Poisoning?

Drinking too much alcohol is the main cause of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol, mainly formed of ethanol which is also known as ethyl alcohol, is found in liquor, beer, wine, other alcoholic beverages, cooking extracts, mouthwash, and more.

The leading cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking. It is the most common and deadly pattern of heavy drinking where a person rapidly consumes an excessive dose of alcohol. Usually, five or more drinks within 2 hours get counted for binge drinking. People suffering from alcoholism are at a greater risk of getting overdosed by alcohol drinking.

As per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking increases your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or above. For men, it happens after five or more drinks, and for women, it is about four or more drinks within 2 hours.

“Alcohol poisoning deaths are not just a problem among young people,” said CDC Alcohol Program Lead and report co-author Robert Brewer, MD, MSPH. “It also emphasises the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to reducing binge drinking that includes evidence-based community strategies, screening and counselling in healthcare settings, and high-quality substance abuse treatment for those who need it.” 

Binge drinking is a very costly activity and most common in rich people.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Overdose?

Your BAC continues rising for the 30-40 minutes after you’ve stopped drinking. Too much alcohol in the bloodstream can cause an alcohol overdose condition in your body and significant harm.

As alcohol affects your Central Nervous System (CNS) it becomes a depressant due to the reaction time in your body. Being a depressant, it can risk your respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. 

Following are some of the signs and symptoms that indicate alcohol poisoning in a person:

  • Slow breathing
  • Vomiting 
  • Pale skin
  • Hypothermia
  • Heart attack (if severe)
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Severe dehydration
  • Choking
  • Loss of sense of balance
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Stupor
  • Unconsciousness
  • Slurred speech
  • Coma (in severe cases)
  • Damage to a developing fetus (in a pregnant woman)

If you see these signs and symptoms anytime in an individual after drinking alcohol, then you must call for a medical emergency as soon as possible.

How Many Drinks Are Considered Alcohol Overdose? 

Alcohol gets quickly absorbed by your body and takes hours to several days to come out of your body because it is metabolised at a constant rate. It gets processed by your liver.  

As you have read earlier, the more you drink in a short space of time, the higher the risk will be for you to have alcohol poisoning. 

Also, there is no particular standard amount of alcohol that leads to overdose. How much alcohol is considered as an overdose varies by the individual? The alcohol content of a drink matters too. For example, it’d require a smaller amount of hard liquor and large amounts of beer.

You can’t say that a fixed amount of alcohol in a glass will be an overdose to every individual present in a place. It may cause overdose to a few of them, while it may have less impact on others.

However, Worldwide, about 11.5% of drinkers have weekly heavy episodic drinking occasions (Table given below), with men outnumbering women by four to one. Men consistently engage in hazardous drinking at much higher levels than women in all regions, according to the WHO report

See the table image from WHO’s global alcohol report:

WHO RegionWomen (%)Men (%)Total (%)
Prevalence of weekly heavy episodic drinking among drinkers in the past 12 months by sex, WHO region and the world, 2005

Whereas, it also depends on factors such as gender, weight, genetic differences in alcohol metabolism, liver function, tolerance level (i.e. a person with an alcohol problem likely has to drink way more alcohol than a person not dependent on alcohol to get alcohol poisoning).

What Are the Risk Factors of Alcohol Overdose?

According to the WHO, Harmful use of alcohol is accountable for 7.1% and 2.2% of the global burden of disease for males and females respectively. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 years, accounting for 10 percent of all deaths in this age group. Disadvantaged and especially vulnerable populations have higher rates of alcohol-related death and hospitalization.

There are numbers of risk factors which can increase the risk of alcohol poisoning, including:

  • Weight 
  • Body size
  • Overall health history
  • Percentage of alcohol in your drink
  • Tolerance level for alcohol
  • Rate and amount of consuming alcohol 

How to Avoid an Overdose of Alcohol?

According to the WHO global report, alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally as well as to the disabilities and poor health of millions of people. Overall, the harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease.

For your health and safety, it’s important to avoid alcohol poisoning, by practising the following guidelines of UK Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines:

  • Eat food before or while drinking.
  • Don’t drink regularly.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones 
  • Limit the number of drinks in one sitting.
  • Take short sips of alcohol.
  • Drink slowly.

When to Look for the Diagnosis of Alcohol Poisoning?

A person can develop alcohol poisoning without showing all of the signs and symptoms discussed above. If you think you, your friend, or loved one is in this condition, then you need to seek immediate medical care. Alcohol poisoning is very serious, especially when a person is unconscious or unable to stay awake; they are at risk of dying. The doctor will tell you whether you need stay in the hospital for further treatment after your diagnosis.

 What can you do for someone if you see them in the condition of alcohol poisoning?

  • Don’t leave them alone if they are unconscious
  • Call for a medical emergency
  • Be ready to help them while you wait for medical help
  • Position them so they don’t choke if they’re vomiting
  • Keep them warm

How Does Alcohol Poisoning Get Treated?

Alcohol poisoning can be treated well in the hospital under the monitoring of medical staff.

  • They will diagnose it based on your symptoms and your BAC level. 
  • The doctor may admit you to the hospital to monitor your condition and provide supportive care until the level of alcohol drops. 
  • They may insert an intravenous drip to hydrate you with fluids and provide glucose and vitamins.  
  • In case of high BAC, hemodialysis may be given to you to remove toxins from your blood.
  • If your condition is severe, then they will insert a windpipe to make you breathe properly.
  • Sometimes when cases become life-threatening, medical staff might pump your stomach with a nasogastric tube to suction out the alcohol. 

Note: Feeling headache, anxious, nausea, and stomach cramps are common while recovering from alcohol poisoning.

Let’s see what should not to do after heavy drinking:

  • Don’t take a cold shower to avoid hypothermia.
  • Don’t have a hot coffee as it can increase dehydration due to caffeine.
  • Don’t have any medicine as it may worsen your condition.
  • Don’t try to induce vomiting by yourself. You may gag. 

Scenario in India

In 2019, the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) proposed the amendment known as Food Safety and Standards (Alcoholic beverages) Amendment Regulations, 2019. 

It states, “1.3.2 The tolerance limit for ethyl alcohol content shall be ± 0.3 percent (-0.5 per cent for up to 90 ml pet bottle) for up to 20 percent, and ±1.0 percent (-1.5 per cent for up to 90 ml pet bottle) for more than 20 percent abv of the declared strength. In the case of wine, the tolerance limit shall be ± 0.5.” 

In India, 0.03% BAC is permissible while driving, and it works out to 30mg of ethanol to every 100ml of blood.

In February 2019, bootleg liquor created mass alcohol poisoning and killed at least 100 people in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. 

Deaths are widespread in India because of illicit alcohol. Usually, in brews, bootleggers add a toxic substance which is used in antifreeze and known as methanol.

As per the report of Alcohol Web India, 10gms or 12.5 ml of pure alcohol is a standard drink. In general, this gets found in 250ml of beer and 100ml of wine, and 30ml distilled spirits such as whiskey, rum, vodka, or gin.

We hope you have a clear idea about alcohol overdose and will drink within the limit, as discussed above. Also, if you or your loved ones have a binge drinking problem, don’t be afraid to seek medical help.