Alcohol Poisoning

Table of Contents


Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous and potentially lethal consequence of consuming too much alcohol too quickly.

Consuming large quantities of alcohol in a brief timeframe will have significant long and short-term effects which impact the following functions:

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  • Body temperature
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Gag reflex

The worst outcome of alcohol poisoning is fatal alcohol overdose triggered by coma. CDC reports that 2,200 deaths in the United States each year are attributable to alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol overdose can also occur if household products containing alcohol are consumed, whether deliberately or accidentally.

All cases of alcohol poisoning should be treated as a medical emergency requiring immediate clinical assistance.

What is Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning occurs when you consume too much alcohol in a short space of time. 

One of the most common abusive patterns of consumption that often leads to alcohol poisoning is binge drinking

According to NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), when a man consumes five standard drinks or more in two hours or a woman consumes at least four standard drinks in the same period, this is classified as binge drinking. 

For the purpose of NIAAA’s definition, a standard drink is any of the following: 

  • Beer (5% ABV, 12oz)
  • Wine (12% ABV, 5oz)
  • Distilled spirits (40% ABV, 1.5oz)

Consuming this amount of alcohol in a brief period causes a dramatic increase in BAC levels (blood alcohol concentration) and places extreme stress on the liver. Alcohol poisoning occurs when BAC levels reach the point of toxicity. 

Blood alcohol concentration levels of alcohol will rise for about forty minutes after the last alcoholic beverage.

Binge drinking does not automatically lead to alcohol poisoning, and not every case of alcohol overdose is caused by binge drinking episodes. That said, there is a strong correlation between abusive patterns of alcohol consumption like binge drinking and acute alcohol intoxication, also known as alcohol poisoning.

An image of the emergency room, where one would have to go in the event of alcohol poisoning

Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol poisoning can result in fatal alcohol overdose. As such, alcohol poisoning should be treated as a medical emergency. 

These are the most common indicators of alcohol overdose:

  • Vomiting: Vomiting can occur with or without alcohol poisoning. Some people may vomit when they are intoxicated, but when someone is vomiting and experiencing the other symptoms below, this can indicate alcohol overdose. Vomiting can further dehydrate you.
  • Breathing problems: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol causes the heart rate to slow significantly. If breathing rate drops to below eight breaths per minute, you should call 911. This is indicative of alcohol overdose.
  • Low body temperature: When large quantities of alcohol flood the system, this causes core body temperature to fall. Very low body temperature can lead to cardiac arrest.
  • Dulled responses: The gag reflex can be inhibited in those experiencing alcohol overdose, leading to a heightened risk of choking on vomit.
  • Mental disorientation: Cognitive confusion is commonplace among those who are drunk, but this manifests more acutely in those experiencing alcohol overdose. Here, normal functioning is radically impaired, and you may not recognize common places or familiar people.
  • Difficulty remaining conscious: If you lose consciousness at any stage while drinking alcohol, this is potentially dangerous and also one of the most common red flags for alcohol overdose.
  • Seizure: Blood sugar levels can become extremely low during alcohol overdose, potentially triggering a seizure. When a seizure takes place, this involves uncontrolled electrical disturbances in the brain that cause problems with standing and remaining conscious.

Any of the following alcohol poisoning symptoms are suggestive of a critical alcohol overdose: 

  • Clammy skin
  • Pale blue hue to skin
  • Extremely low body temperature
  • Stupor
  • Mental confusion
  • Suppressed gag reflex
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Breathing rate of less than 8 breaths per minute
  • Irregular breathing
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Seizure

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) reports the effects of alcohol overdose as follows: 

  • Mild
  • Increased
  • Severe
  • Life-threatening

Mild: BAC levels from 0.0% to 0.05%

  • Coordination
  • Memory
  • Speech
  • Attention
  • Sleepiness
  • Relaxation

Increased: BAC levels from 0.06% to 0.15% 

  • Coordination
  • Balance
  • Speech
  • Aggression
  • Memory
  • Relaxation
  • Risk of injury
  • Driving skills
  • Intoxication

Severe: BAC levels from 0.16% to 0.30%

  • Vomiting
  • Losing consciousness
  • Decision making
  • Losing consciousness
  • Driving ability dangerously impaired
  • Judgment
  • Speech and balance severely impaired

Life-threatening: BAC levels from 0.31% to 0.45%

  • Suppression of vital functions
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Significant risk of death

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

There are many contributory factors to the quantity of alcohol required to trigger alcohol poisoning in an individual, including:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Tolerance for alcohol

If you weigh 100 pounds, you could raise BAC levels to the point of toxicity after three standard drinking. If you weight 275 pounds, by contrast, you might consume a handful of standard drinks before BAC levels get dangerously high. 

While it can be challenging to differentiate between alcohol poisoning and alcohol intoxication, look out for the following alcohol poisoning symptoms: 

  • Vomiting
  • Passing out
  • Incoherency
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Stupor
  • Confusion
  • Abnormal breathing patterns
  • Pale and clammy skin

If you notice any of the symptoms above in yourself or a loved one, it suggests blood concentration is becoming saturated with alcohol. It is not necessary for all the symptoms of alcohol poisoning to present before seeking medical assistance. Allowing someone overdosing on alcohol to lose consciousness can be life-threatening and possible fatal.

Alcohol Poisoning vs. Being Drunk

If your internet search history contains entries like “alcohol poisoning symptoms vs. drunk”, your patterns of alcohol consumption may be unhealthy and potentially dangerous. 

There is no meaningful difference between the mechanism underpinning alcohol poisoning and alcohol intoxication. In both cases, alcohol dulls systems within the body and mind. 

The core difference between drunkenness and alcohol poisoning is the quantity of alcohol consumed in terms of BAC levels. In the case of alcohol poisoning, the dangerous physical and psychological effects can be magnified to a potentially lethal level.

A man looks away at sunset to represent the question: how long does alcohol detox take?

Alcohol Poisoning Treatment and Rehab at California Detox

Treating alcohol poisoning usually involves administering supportive care while your body purges itself of toxins and toxic by-products of alcohol. Breathing will be monitored, choking issues mitigated, and intravenous fluids introduced to prevent dehydration. 

The most effective method of detoxifying from alcohol poisoning and alcohol abuse is to engage with a medically supervised detox. At our California alcohol rehab , you can benefit from clinical and emotional care along with medications to make withdrawal as safe and comfortable as possible. 

We offer treatment programs at all levels of intensity for alcohol use disorder and any co-occurring mental health disorders, including: 

  • OP: outpatient program
  • IOP: intensive outpatient program
  • PHP: partial hospitalization program
  • Virtual IOP: remote rehab
  • Inpatient program: residential rehab

While there is no cure for alcohol use disorder, it responds favorably to MAT (medication-assisted treatment). There are several FDA-approved medications that can inhibit cravings and discourage subsequent alcohol abuse. Your treatment team can administer these to streamline your detox and recovery. 

Additionally, you’ll have access to the following evidence-based interventions at California Detox: 

  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Psychotherapy – CBT or DBT
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapies

Take action today by reaching out to the friendly admissions team here at California Detox. Call 949.567.879 to kickstart your recovery.


While the actual direct effect of alcohol will last a few hours, lingering problems and symptoms can last longer, sometimes multiple days in some cases.
If you have a case of alcohol poisoning you should seek professional or emergency services as alcohol poisoning can be fatal in some cases.


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