Alcohol Poisoning: Symptoms & What to Do

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Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

What do you know about alcohol poisoning? When should you seek help for a friend? Learn how to recognize and react to the symptoms of an alcohol overdose.


Imagine a young child accidentally consumes a large amount of a product containing alcohol and loses consciousness. What would you do? Most of us would take action. We would call poison control, or rush the child to the hospital for medical care.

Alcohol poisoning is the ingestion of a toxic amount of alcohol. A toxic alcohol level is typically defined as a blood alcohol level at or above .4. This typically results in the death in half of those who reach this blood alcohol level. Like our previous example with the young child, alcohol poisoning can occur accidentally. However, it most often occurs when someone drinks too much alcohol too quickly, and it can have serious consequences. Would your reaction to a friend who passed out after drinking too much be the same as it was to the child in the example?

Alcohol is classified as a depressant. This means that it suppresses the function of the brain and nervous system. Even if alcohol poisoning does not cause death, the person can still be left with irreversible brain damage. Alcohol poisoning is a serious issue that has been historically under-reported in the United States and occurs more frequently than most people think. For instance, alcohol is the cause of death in young people six times more than all other drugs combined.


When you think of an overdose, you may imagine someone who is unconscious and unresponsive. However, this is not the only sign of alcohol poisoning. How do you know if someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning? Individual tolerance to alcohol differs. Therefore, the signs of alcohol poisoning differ for each victim. If any of these symptoms exist, there is cause for alarm.

As we've already mentioned, unconsciousness is a major sign of alcohol poisoning. It's never normal for a person to pass out after consuming a large amount of alcohol. However, some people may exhibit mental confusion instead. If someone becomes disoriented, or begins to say things that do not make sense, this is also a symptom of alcohol poisoning.

Seizures are another symptom that may occur, as alcohol affects a person's blood sugar level, causing it to become too low. This is especially significant if the person has a medical condition that causes difficulty regulating blood sugar levels, such as diabetes.

Since alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, vomiting is also a commonly associated symptom of alcohol poisoning. When a person is unconscious or disoriented, they may choke on their own vomit because alcohol suppresses the gag reflex. Alcohol strips the body of water, putting alcohol-poisoning victims at risk for severe dehydration if vomiting is present.

Slow or irregular breathing is another sign of alcohol overdose. This can be defined as fewer than eight breaths per minute or intervals with ten seconds or more between breaths. A slow or irregular heartbeat may occur as well.

Alcohol poisoning can also result in hypothermia, or low body temperature. Alcohol may make a person feel warmer because it causes the blood to rise to the surface of the skin, but this actually allows heat to escape from their body more rapidly. Hypothermia may cause someone to appear pale or bluish in color.

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