Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning and Overdose and How to Spot the Signs

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, which is also known as alcohol overdose, is caused by drinking a lot in a short period of time. Your body can only break down around one unit of alcohol an hour so if you drink more than that, your system can quickly become overwhelmed. 

Anyone can be susceptible to alcohol poisoning – whether you’re a seasoned drinker who has gone on a bender or a teenager at your first-ever party. Even children can be poisoned if they accidentally drink household products that contain alcohol.

Everyone’s threshold for alcohol poisoning differs. Binge drinking at the weekends or opting to match a friend’s ‘drink for a drink’ can have disastrous consequences. What might be a comfortable amount for them to drink could be too much alcohol for you and this can lead to an overdose. 

Can Alcohol Poisoning Be Fatal?

Yes, it can. When there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream the brain can no longer control essential life-saving functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. 

Alcohol poisoning can be fatal in other ways. If you flood your system with booze, your judgement becomes clouded and your reflexes slow. This can lead to accidents, making risky decisions or becoming violent; all of which can have catastrophic consequences. 

Alcohol kills around 3.3 million people a year, which means that a fifth of all deaths worldwide are caused by alcohol. It’s a sobering thought.

You don’t need to drink a lot to die from an alcohol overdose, as it depends on your age, gender, build, tolerance, and how much food you’ve eaten. A 19-year-old with no history of alcohol abuse died after just three drinks at a party.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is often mistaken for just ‘being drunk’ and yet if you don’t seek urgent medical treatment, it can be fatal. Suggesting someone ‘sleeps it off when they’re actually slipping into an alcohol-induced coma, could result in death. 

Alcohol-poisoning signs include:

  • Confusion
  • Slurring words
  • Poor coordination (i.e. staggering around)
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Vomiting 
  • Choking on their own vomit
  • Skin turning pale or blue
  • Seizures 
  • Being conscious but unresponsive 
  • Being difficult to wake up
  • Passing out into unconsciousness 

What Does Alcohol Poisoning Feel Like?

It can affect people in different ways. You might just feel blind and drunk and not believe you’re in a life-threatening situation, or you could simply black out and not remember anything at all. In some cases, especially if you drink alcohol a lot and have a high tolerance, it might be difficult to identify alcohol poisoning and treat you correctly. 

A 41-year-old man with a history of alcohol abuse was admitted to hospital with vomiting, stomach pain and irregular heart rate after swapping his usual beers for ‘shots of industrial alcohol’, although he couldn’t recall what exactly. As he didn’t present with all the classic symptoms of alcohol poisoning, it took numerous tests, and some time, to diagnose him correctly. He survived but not everyone will be so lucky.

What Are Your Symptoms the Day After Alcohol Poisoning?

The symptoms of alcohol overdose can feel like a bad hangover. However, whereas you might expect to sleep a hangover off and it usually goes away within 24 hours, symptoms of alcohol poisoning persist. 

The day after your overdose, you may feel confused, your skin might be pale and clammy to the touch, you may be unsteady on your feet or you may not be able to stop vomiting.

If you feel that what you’re experiencing is more serious than a hangover you need to call for immediate help. 

You may be tempted – or even encouraged by others – to have the ‘hair of the dog’ and drink alcohol as this is wrongly assumed to make you feel better. However, adding more booze to a system poisoned by alcohol is dangerous and could exacerbate your symptoms.

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How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last?

It depends on many factors including your build, gender, and tolerance to alcohol, but it can last up to three days. During this time it can cause irreversible damage to your brain and other vital organs so it’s essential you receive urgent medical treatment.

Being left alone during this period could prove fatal in case you slip into a coma. You need to be monitored by medical professionals. Alcohol poisoning impairs your gag reflex which means if you vomit while passed out or even asleep, you could easily choke to death. 

What’s the Difference Between Alcohol Poisoning and Being Drunk?

There can appear to be little difference as the symptoms (slurring words, staggering round) are similar, which is why alcohol poisoning is difficult to identify. However, one of the main signs is getting drunk very quickly. If, after two hours you, or someone you are with, appear much drunker than everyone else, they may have alcohol poisoning. 

Technically, this means the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08% or higher, and this can happen when a woman drinks just four drinks in two hours and a man drinks five. It’s not much, is it?

What’s the Difference Between Alcohol Poisoning and a Hangover?

While they might feel similar, you won’t die from a hangover. Hangovers tend to last for around 24 hours while alcohol poisoning can last up to three days and the symptoms are usually more severe. Hangovers tend to happen after a night of drinking but alcohol poisoning can be sudden and begin within hours of you drinking. 

By the time you realise something isn’t right – because after 48 hours you’re struggling to wake up and you’re totally confused – and help is called, it may have caused irreparable damage to your organs. 

Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers are so used to hangovers (75% of those who drink to intoxication expect a hangover some of the time) that alcohol poisoning can be shielded by this expected side effect of drinking. And this can be fatal. 

What Happens to Your Body During Alcohol Poisoning?

Once alcohol is swimming around in your blood it can reach internal organs very easily and these can be damaged, sometimes irreversibly. Increased alcohol in the bloodstream also lowers blood sugar levels and this can result in seizures. 

Repeated vomiting and retching can mean tearing blood vessels in the stomach and you 

may then start vomiting blood. If you fall into a coma you can stop breathing. 

Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Permanent Damage?

Yes, it can. All vital organs, including the brain, can be irreparably damaged by alcohol poisoning and many of the symptoms of overdose (such as seizures) can have permanent effects on the brain. 

Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Liver Damage?

Yes. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time can lead to fatty liver disease (also known as steatosis). While this can be symptomless, around 40% of people who continue to drink will go on to develop an inflamed liver (also known as alcoholic hepatitis), and this is fatal in half of all cases.

Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Kidney Failure?

Yes. After binge drinking, you may notice a decrease in the amount of urine you produce and pain on the lower sides of your back (your flanks). Ignore this at your peril as it can be a sign of acute kidney failure, and you need urgent medical treatment.

Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Sepsis?

Yes, it can. Sepsis, which used to be called ‘blood poisoning’, is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It comes on quickly and can be aggravated by acute exposure to ethanol (the active ingredient in alcohol). Sepsis is one of the main causes of death in the world. If it’s not identified and treated almost immediately, it will most likely kill you. 

Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Brain Damage?

Yes, it can. When alcohol enters your system it targets the brain, which is why you slur your words and have poor coordination. If your brain is flooded with alcohol it damages the neurons which transmit messages around the body. 

Extreme dehydration, brought on by too much alcohol in your system, can result in permanent brain damage. Alcohol-related brain damage has been known to cause dementia and can make even completing day-to-day tasks difficult.  

Can Alcohol Poisoning Cause Vertigo?

Ever had the feeling the room is spinning after a few drinks? That is a sign of vertigo and while in most cases it goes when your hangover subsides, it can be a sign of alcohol poisoning. 

Excessive drinking affects the ears, which are responsible for balance. Dehydration from too much alcohol affects the levels of fluid in the ears and leaves you feeling dizzy and unable to stand up or walk in a straight line. This can lead to accidents and injury. 

How Do I Get Help After Alcohol Poisoning?

If you feel that you, or someone else, is showing symptoms of alcohol overdose, it is important that you get urgent medical help. 

Even if you, or the person in question, is underage or has been taking illegal drugs, call for help. Medics are not there to judge or reprimand – they’re there to save lives. 

When Do I Call 999 for Alcohol Poisoning?

As soon as you suspect that something might be wrong because you, or someone else, has become drunk very quickly or looks extremely unwell. Being very sleepy and unresponsive, acting confused, and staggering around with pale or blue skin are all alcohol poisoning signs.

Equally, if 24 hours or more after your last drink your ‘hangover’ isn’t easing and you’re struggling to stay awake or think straight, call for help as you may be in the process of an alcohol overdose.

Adolescents and young people with low tolerance to alcohol are more at risk of poisoning. Although they don’t drink as often as older people, they tend to binge drink larger amounts and this can lead to overdose. In America, a whopping 90% of teenagers are binge drinking.

How Can Alcohol Poisoning Be Treated? 

Once in the hospital, you can be monitored by medics who can check for organ damage. You may be put on a drip to rehydrate and replenish with vitamins, and a tube might be inserted into your mouth and windpipe to help with breathing.

How Can I Help Someone with Alcohol Poisoning?

The best thing you can do if you see alcohol poisoning signs is call for medical help, even if friends are telling you they’re ‘just drunk’ or asking you not to alert the authorities because they’re taking illegal drugs. Delaying for even a small amount of time can have dangerous, if not fatal, consequences.

While you’re waiting for help, ensure that they have stopped drinking. Give them water instead. Try to keep them sitting up and awake and if they have passed out, put them in the recovery position. Keep them warm and stay with them. If you leave them to sleep they might fall into a coma. 

Don’t play doctor. Making them drink coffee, have a cold shower, take a nap or go for a walk won’t have any effect on alcohol poisoning and all you’re doing is delaying receiving proper medical help. When medics do arrive, be honest about what they’ve had to drink and if they’ve combined it with any drugs. If you are aware of them having a history of alcohol abuse, say so.

Don’t think that if they stop drinking, it eliminates their risk of alcohol overdose. The level of alcohol in the blood continues to rise for 30 or 40 minutes after the last drink.

What Happens If Alcohol Poisoning Goes Untreated?

Quite simply, you can die. The effects of alcohol poisoning can result in seizures, slower breathing to the point it stops, sleepiness to the point of coma as well and an impaired gag reflex so you can choke on your own vomit, if you don’t receive medical help it can be fatal. 

In the first year of the Covid pandemic, when many people were locked down and alone, alcohol-related deaths rose by a staggering 25%. While not all of those were attributed to alcohol poisoning, the inability to access treatment is one possible cause.

Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage, which means even if you stop drinking, your cognitive ability, memory and coordination could be affected forever.

What Should I Eat After Alcohol Poisoning?

Firstly, you need to drink water as you will be dehydrated. Take it in small sips so as not to overwhelm your body. If you’ve been vomiting or had stomach pain as a result of alcohol poisoning, you may have damaged your stomach lining so avoid anything spicy.

Plain carbohydrates such as toast and pasta, and vitamin-rich foods such as fruit should help rebalance your body after the trauma drinking too much alcohol has caused.  

What Medicine Do You Take for Alcohol Poisoning?

It is important that you seek professional medical advice following alcohol poisoning and don’t self-medicate. This is because you will be unaware of the damage it has done to your body and the treatment you may need.

While you might reach immediately for over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen to alleviate headache or other pain, it is always best to seek advice first
(and get this pain checked out).

Taking medicine might do you more damage than good. Aspirin increases the toxicity of alcohol and can make symptoms of alcohol poisoning worse.

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can affect the kidneys. If alcohol poisoning has damaged your kidneys (you may be anti-inflammatories for the back pain which is actually flank pain and a sign of kidney damage), you could cause further harm.

How Do You Avoid Alcohol Poisoning?

  • Keep an eye on how much you drink and what you drink
  • Avoid drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time
  • Have water or a soft drink between each alcoholic drink as this will keep you hydrated and give your liver more time to break down the booze in your body
  • Drink alcohol that you are familiar with. If you’re a weak lager drinker who starts downing whiskey, you might overdose accidentally
  • Stop drinking if you start to feel drunk
  • Be aware of alcohol poisoning signs (i.e. falling drunk very quickly)
  • Talk to your children. Young people are particularly in danger of alcohol poisoning as they have fewer opportunities to drink and so when they do arise they are more likely to be binge drinking. Accept that they will drink alcohol so educate them on how to drink responsibly and look out for their friends

How to Seek Professional Help for Alcohol Poisoning?

If you suffer from alcohol poisoning even once, it can mean you have a problem with alcohol. Maybe you live for your weekend binges or you’re someone who rarely drinks but when you do you can’t stop. Maybe you have a history of alcohol abuse that sometimes tips over into alcohol overdose. Whatever the reason, you need to seek help. Your first port of call should be your GP who can signpost you to services that may help you.  

The safest and most successful way to avoid alcohol poisoning is to deal with the reasons behind your drinking habits and arm you with strategies on how to avoid overdosing again. This is what an addiction treatment centre can provide. Whatever your relationship with alcohol, it is never too late to get help.


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