What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning (overdose) is a serious condition that occurs when a person drinks a large amount of alcohol over a short period of time. Alcohol poisoning can range in severity, and signs may include disorientation, unresponsiveness or even coma and death. Alcohol poisoning is an emergency and needs immediate treatment by medical professionals.

Binge drinking is a leading cause of alcohol poisoning, and it is defined as five or more drinks for men, and four or more drinks for women, in a matter of two hours. Binge drinking is a level of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or higher.


A person suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD), such as alcohol abuse or alcoholism, may experience problems with health, work, school or home. A person who binge drinks isn’t necessarily suffering from alcoholism, but the risks are still severe. Ninety percent of adults in the United States who drink excessively report binge drinking in the last 30 days.

Understanding the effects of alcohol, and learning about moderation, can help a person avoid serious consequences like alcohol poisoning. Moderate drinking is up to two drinks a day for men and up to one drink a day for women.

How Much Alcohol Does It Take To Overdose?

Alcohol poisoning doesn’t simply depend on the volume of alcohol a person drinks, because different types of drinks contain different amounts of alcohol. The amount of alcohol in a standard drink may vary depending on the type of alcohol a person is drinking.

A standard drink contains approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol, which can be found in:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor (40 percent alcohol)

A toxic amount of alcohol will vary for each person, and factors like age, gender, weight and amount of alcohol are all factors which affect risk of alcohol poisoning. It takes the liver an average of one hour to metabolize one ounce of alcohol, which brings the BAC to a level of 0.015.

The more alcohol a person drinks, the higher their BAC rises. With too much alcohol, the liver becomes unable to metabolize it, and shuts down, leading to alcohol poisoning. The following chart shows how alcohol affects a person based on their weight and gender. In general, a BAC higher than 0.30 is life-threatening.


Women tend to have less body water than men of similar body weight, which makes them have a higher BAC after drinking the same amount. Men are more likely to experience alcohol poisoning. Yet research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol-related organ damage, trauma and legal and interpersonal difficulties.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Poisoning

Recognizing if a person has had a toxic amount of alcohol is difficult, as knowing the amount a person has had to drink isn’t information that is always readily available. A person who overdoses on alcohol may seem super drunk, uncoordinated or out of control.

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning may include:

  • slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • stupor
  • pale, clammy and bluish-tinged skin
  • hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • difficulty remaining conscious
  • unresponsiveness
  • incoherence
  • comatose

Alcohol poisoning occurs when there’s too much alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. When there’s too much alcohol in the blood, the brain becomes severely impaired, and simple motor functions such as breathing, heart rate and temperature control begin to slow or shut off.

What To Do For Alcohol Poisoning

There are 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths in the United States each year. Sometimes alcohol poisoning can be avoided by understanding the symptoms and how to respond to them. Knowing what to to do in the case of alcohol overdose might even save a life. If a person is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, get medical help immediately by calling 911.

In the case of alcohol poisoning, it’s vital to keep the individual awake, sitting upright and to keep them talking. If a person is discovered unconscious and unresponsive from believed alcohol poisoning, try to wake them and turn them onto their side to avoid choking on their vomit.

Severe alcohol intoxication can not be remedied by sleeping it off, taking a shower or drinking coffee. In the case of alcohol poisoning, avoid coffee and cold showers because both can actually make matters worse. Coffee continues to dehydrate the body, even more than the alcohol already has, and cold showers increase the risk of hypothermia from alcohol poisoning.

If a person is showing any signs of alcohol poisoning, don’t let them go to bed. The alcohol will continue to absorb into the bloodstream through the digestive system, which causes the BAC to continue rising long after they stop drinking. Going to sleep while highly intoxicated is risky.

Who Is At Risk For Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol is a drug, and too much of it becomes toxic to the body. Alcohol poisoning affects any person who, in a short period of time, drinks more than their liver is able to metabolize. However, there are certain age groups who are at increased risk of alcohol poisoning. Three out of four alcohol poisoning deaths are among adults 35 to 64 years old.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 76 percent of those who die from alcohol poisoning are men. Statistically, middle-aged men are at the highest risk of alcohol poisoning.


Alaska has the most alcohol poisoning deaths per million people, while Alabama has the least. The CDC also states that alcoholism was identified as a factor in 30 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths, and there are over 15 million American adults suffering from an alcohol use disorder like alcoholism.

Treatment For Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder affects each person differently, and no two cases are the same. An individualized treatment approach allows people to face their own personal struggle with alcohol and find their own balance and purpose. AUD often stems from environmental, biological and psychological factors. Many people who have a drinking problem use alcohol to cope with trauma, stress, mental illness or grief.

A person struggling with alcohol abuse may have built up years of unhealthy coping skills and learned behaviors, which can take months or even years to correct. The alcohol treatment programs at Vertava Health focus on treating each person for his or her personal needs and helping them live a self-directed life without alcohol.

Learn more by reaching out to a treatment specialist at Vertava Health.