What is an Alcohol Overdose?

What is an Alcoholic Overdose_

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 | By Cooper Samp

Alcohol is one of the most widely used drugs today. Many drink alcohol for its relaxing effects and to loosen up during social gatherings, but alcohol can have a variety of adverse effects on the body. Most are aware of alcohol’s long term effects such as liver disease and its effect on the human brain, but alcohol can cause immediate harm when consumed excessively. 

When people drink too much alcohol at one time, it can lead to an alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning. According to Mayo Clinic, “Alcohol poisoning is a serious — and sometimes deadly — consequences of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking too much too quickly can affect your breathing, heart rate, body temperature and gag reflex and potentially lead to coma and death.”

While the most common cause results from drinking alcoholic drinks, alcohol poisoning of children typically happen during the accidental ingestion of house products that contain alcohol. 

If you feel someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately. Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that can be life threatening.

What Causes an Alcohol Overdose

When a person drinks alcohol, they tend to feel relaxed. Sometimes, alcohol can make people unaware and they begin to lose their inhibitions. For these reasons, it can be very easy for many people to forget how much alcohol they are consuming. 

Therefore, the more people drink, the easier it is for them to forget to quit drinking, leading them to become extremely vulnerable to overdrinking and alcohol poisoning. 

The reason people begin to feel relaxed and unconstrained is alcohol’s effect on the central nervous system (CNS).  It’s considered a depressant because it slows down your movement, reaction time, and movement.

Alcohol also affects the body’s organs. 

  • First, alcohol is absorbed by our body’s intestines which transfers the alcohol into our bloodstream. 
  • From there, alcohol is flushed through our liver. Here the alcohol is metabolized in an effort the flush out the alcohol through elimination. 
    • But, the liver can only metabolize so much at one time. When we drink excessively, the excess alcohol is rerouted back into our bloodstream. 
  • Overtime our bloodstream becomes concentrated with more and more alcohol.  

1 unit of alcohol per hour is the appropriate amount to drink in order to effectively metabolize alcohol safely. This is equal to a shot of liquor or a half pint of beer or a third of a glass of wine. If you drink more than this and your body isn’t able to break it down fast enough, it accumulates in your body. 

What are the risk factors for an alcohol overdose?

There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning. These can include:


Developing bodies (especially the brain) can be extra vulnerable to the effects of alcohol poisoning. Young adults also are more likely to drink excessively, leading to an alcohol poisoning/overdose.


Physically, women are more prone to alcohol overdose. Men are can metabolize more alcohol than women due to height and weight differences. Therefore, when men and women drink together, women become susceptible to alcohol poisoning trying to stay on pace with men. On the other hand, culturally, men are more likely than women to drink heavily, resulting in a greater risk for an alcohol overdose.

Body size

The bigger a person’s body, the more blood they have running through them. The more blood a person has the less the percentage of alcohol in their blood. For this reason, a heavier man may be able to drink 6 drinks in an hour without feeling drunk, while a petite woman might experience an alcohol overdose from the same alcohol. 

Binge drinking

Naturally, people who like to drink excessively in a quick period of time are at risk. Binge drinking (drinking more than 5 drinks in an hour) might be more common than you might think. Often times binge drinking occurs during tailgates, pre-games, college parties, and during social gatherings including drinking games. 

Other health conditions

A common health condition that can attribute to increased alcohol overdose is diabetes. There are a variety of other conditions like heart complications that can increase the adverse effects of an overdose.

Drug use

Like health conditions, additional drug use alongside drinking can lead to further complications. For instance, combining a stimulant (like Adderall or cocaine) with alcohol can wreak havoc on the heart. Additionally, adding more depressants like benzodiazepines (Xanax) can bring human processes like the heart to dangerously slow levels. 

If you combine alcohol and drugs, you may not feel the effects of the alcohol. This may cause you to drink more, increasing your risk for an alcohol overdose.

What are the symptoms of an alcohol overdose?

Symptoms of an alcohol overdose can include:

  • changes in mental state, including confusion
  • passing out (unconsciousness)
  • a decrease in body temperature (hypothermia)
  • pale or blue skin
  • Vomiting

Serious symptoms can include:

  • seizures as a result of low blood sugar levels
  • slowing or stopping breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex, all of which are controlled by your nervous system
  • cardiac arrest following a decrease in your body temperature (hypothermia)

If someone’s breathing has slowed to less than eight breaths per minute — or if they can’t be woken up — call 911.

If you believe someone is suffering from an overdose, do not leave them alone. Place them on their side. When someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning, their bodies will try to expel alcohol any way it can, usually leading to vomiting. However, too much alcohol can suppress gag reflexes creating a greater likelihood of choking on their own vomit.  

How is an alcohol overdose diagnosed?

During an overdose, a doctor may perform tests, such as blood tests (to determine your blood alcohol and glucose levels) and urine tests. By these numbers, a doctor will be able to assess the severity of the poisoning and whether or not there will be significant bodily damage.

An alcohol overdose can damage your pancreas, which digests food and monitors the levels of glucose in your blood. Low blood sugar can be an indicator of alcohol poisoning.

How is an alcohol overdose treated?

Overdoses are typically treated by medical staff in the emergency room. Depending on how long since the person’s last drink, they may choose to pump the stomach to remove as much alcohol to prevent further poisoning. Another method is to administer charcoal, which is also used in other types of poisonings. Charcoal absorbs the toxins limiting the amount transferred into the bloodstream. 

If you develop more serious symptoms, such as seizures, your doctor may need to provide additional treatments, including:

  • fluids or medications provided through a vein (intravenously)
  • medications to stop the seizure activity
  • nutrients (such as thiamin or glucose) to prevent additional complications of alcohol poisoning, such as brain damage
  • supplemental oxygen provided through a mask or tube inserted in the nose

What is the long-term outlook for an alcohol overdose?

The long-term effects of an alcoholic overdose depend on the severity of the poisoning (blood alcohol content) as well as how quickly a person receives help. 

A serious consequence of alcohol can be permanent brain damage resulting from seizures. 

How can you prevent an alcohol overdose?

You can prevent an alcohol overdose by limiting your alcohol intake. You might consider sticking with one drink or abstaining from alcohol altogether. Seek help if you have a drinking problem.

Take action to protect your loved ones from an alcohol overdose. Talk to your children about the dangers of alcohol and possible overdose. According to the Mayo Clinic, open communication has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of teen drinking and subsequent alcohol poisoning.

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