Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Prevention - Dr. Axe

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Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention


Alcohol poisoning - Dr. Axe

On college campuses, in fraternities and sororities, in backyards, in basements, and in bars, people are drinking to excess and getting alcohol poisoning, a life-threatening (and entirely preventable) emergency. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 2,200 deaths each year in the United States attributed to this condition, and even worse, more than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use each year in the U.S.

Things only got worse during the pandemic, when problem drinking spiked.

Alcohol poisoning symptoms are the result of drinking copious amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking games and hazing incidents where alcohol is used as a punishment or a test of fortitude are all too familiar today, and sadly, when the first signs appear that someone has consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol, people don’t know to call 911.

Unfortunately, there are three frightening myths surrounding how to treat someone who is intoxicated that can make the condition worse and lead to death.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is essentially an alcohol overdose caused by consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Too much alcohol overwhelms the body’s natural ability to break it down and clear it from the system, leading to a rapid increase in the blood alcohol count (BAC). Essentially, the drinker has consumed a toxic amount of alcohol.


As the BAC rises, so does the alcohol’s effects. Poor judgment, a decrease in coordination, personality changes and vomiting are signs of a high BAC that is significantly impairing brain function.

When there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream, certain life-support functions — including breathing, the gag reflex, temperature control and heart rate — can begin to shut down. If the drinker passes out, the risk is not over as the BAC continues to rise and the life-support functions begin to shut down. This can result in death.

Three Myths of Alcohol Poisoning

  1. You can sleep it off.
  2. A cold shower will wake you up.
  3. Caffeine will make you more alert.

The problem with sleeping is that alcohol suppresses natural reflexes, including the gag reflex. So if someone passes out and then vomits, that person can choke to death because the gag reflex doesn’t work.

A cold shower sounds harmless enough, but the reality is that alcohol lowers the core temperature of the body, and a cold shower on top of that can cause hypothermia. Caffeine just masks the outward symptoms of alcohol; it doesn’t reduce the level of alcohol in the body.

This leads to another myth — combining alcohol and high-caffeine drinks keeps you from getting drunk. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, studies show that the now common practice of mixing energy drinks with alcohol leads to greater consumption as the depressant effects of alcohol are diminished. Those who combine caffeine and alcohol are four times more likely to binge drink at a high intensity, particularly in the 15- to 23-years-old age group.

Rapid binge drinking, dares, hazing and drinking games are dangerous. Irreversible brain damage, coma and death are possible, and the statistics are staggering.

According to the CDC, one in six adults admits to binge drinking four times a month, consuming eight or more drinks per binge. If you witness any of the common signs of an alcohol overdose like stupor, seizures, irregular breathing or others, call 911 immediately. Time is of the essence.

Alcohol poisoning facts - Dr. Axe

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

Excessive alcohol consumption is the fourth-leading cause of preventable death in the United States and a risk factor for many health and social problems. Excessive alcohol consumption includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, any alcohol consumption by pregnant women, and any alcohol consumption for those 21 years of age and younger.

While 80,000 deaths per year between 2001 to 2005 were attributed to excessive alcohol consumption, binge drinking accounted for more than half of those deaths. In addition to alcohol poisoning, other alcohol-related causes of death include falls, vehicle accidents and violence.

Sadly, many people don’t know and cannot recognize alcohol poisoning symptoms or signs of extreme intoxication. While many of them may appear mild, many of the deaths that occur happen when someone is left alone after she or he passed out or lost consciousness. Remember, the blood alcohol count continues to rise for a couple of hours, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.

Never leave a person alone who has passed out after drinking. Try to keep that person awake. Don’t let this person lie on her back, and if any of the following symptoms appear, call 911 immediately:

  • Repeated vomiting
  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Cold, clammy hands or the chills
  • Skin becomes bluish
  • Hypothermia
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness and can’t be awakened
  • Stupor
  • Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
  • Irregular breathing (a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)

Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning

Dangers of Binge Drinking

  • Falls
  • Burns
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Suicide
  • Vulnerability to assault
  • Homicide
  • Partner violence
  • Unprotected sex, possibly resulting in sexually transmitted diseases and/or unintended pregnancy

Causes and Risk Factors

While consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time is the undeniable cause of alcohol poisoning, there are some factors that do affect the way that the human body handles alcohol, such as:

  • Overall health
  • Size and weight
  • Sex
  • Amount and type of food consumed before drinking
  • If drinking alcohol is accompanied by any illegal drugs, prescription drugs or caffeine
  • Personal tolerance level
  • Consuming more than four drinks for women
  • Consuming more than five drinks for men
  • Alcoholism

Treatment (Do’s and Dont’s)

Alcohol poisoning is a serious and potentially life-threatening emergency, and time is of the essence. Call 911 immediately if any of the signs or symptoms above are present. Also, follow these guidelines:



  • Stay with the person, even if he appears to be sleeping.
  • Try to keep her conscious.
  • Remain calm and firm.
  • Wrap in blankets or jackets to keep him warm.
  • Do the Bacchus maneuver, a position that keeps someone from choking on vomit.
  • If the person is sitting upright, give her water or coconut water.
  • If she vomits, help her by keeping her sitting up.
  • Be prepared to perform CPR.
  • If you cannot awaken the person, call 911 immediately.
  • Be prepared to provide information on the type and quantity of alcohol consumed and when.


  • Leave the person alone to sleep it off
  • Give him caffeine
  • Give her food or medication, even over-the-counter painkillers
  • Have that person walk
  • Let him take a cold shower
  • Hesitate to call 911 — her life may depend on immediate emergency medical attention
Alcohol poisoning treatment - Dr. Axe

How Much Alcohol Is in Your Drink?

The amount of alcohol a drink contains varies widely, depending on the type of drink and the serving size. The alcohol by volume (ABV) of beers ranges from about 4 percent to 11 percent for 12 ounces for most beers, while wines range from 10 percent to 14 percent per five-ounce serving.

The alcohol content is much higher in spirits and mixed drinks, with ABVs that are commonly 40 percent to 50 percent, or higher, per drink.

Here are some ABV estimates:

  • National Brand Beer: 5 percent to 6 percent
  • Micro-Brew Beers, Stouts, Malt Beverages: Up to 15 percent
  • White Wine: 10 percent to 15 percent ABV
  • Red Wine: 12 percent to 16 percent ABV
  • Fortified Wine (sherry, port, Madeira): 16 percent to 24 percent ABV
  • Sake: 20 percent ABV
  • Vodka: 40 percent to 95 percent ABV
  • Gin: 36 percent to 50 percent ABV
  • Rum: 36 percent to 50 percent ABV
  • Whiskey: 36 percent to 50 percent ABV
  • Tequila: 50 percent to 51 percent ABV
  • Liqueurs (schnapps, triple sec, amaretto): 15 percent to 20 percent ABV

Mixed drinks that include one or more types of alcohol have the highest alcohol content. The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides a free cocktail calculator to help determine the amount of alcohol in each drink.

Here are some popular mixed drinks and their alcohol content:

  • Vodka Martini: 30 percent to 40 percent or greater
  • Tom Collins: 8 percent
  • Mojito: 13 percent to 16 percent or greater
  • Margarita: 30 percent to 40 percent or greater
  • Pina Colada: 13 percent to 15 percent
  • Screwdriver: 11 percent to 14 percent or greater
  • Vodka Tonic: 13 percent or greater
  • Long Island Ice Tea: 25 percent or greater


1. Drink in Moderation

The failproof way to avoid alcohol poisoning is to limit alcohol consumption. If you are going to drink multiple drinks, stop when you first start to feel buzzed.

2. Don’t Participate in Drinking Games/Hazing

Sip drinks slowly, and keep track of your alcohol consumption. Know your limits.

Stand strong in the face of peer pressure, and leave the event if you are uncomfortable.

3. Eat a Healthy Meal

Before consuming alcohol, eat a healthy, well-rounded meal. Having some food in your stomach may help slow alcohol absorption, but it will not prevent alcohol overdose.

While at a party or event, try to snack to keep food in your system.

4. Alternate Alcoholic Drinks and Non-Alcoholic Drinks

While at a party, for every cocktail, glass of wine or beer you have, have a non-alcoholic (and non-caffeinated) drink. The best choices are water or coconut water to help you stay hydrated.

Even better, you can avoid alcohol completely, and opt for mocktails instead.

5. Use N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)

To lessen the toxic effects that alcohol has on the body, take 200 milligrams of N-acetyl cysteine before drinking. This may help reduce hangover symptoms the following day.

6. Take B Vitamins

Alcohol depletes many nutrients in the body, with the B vitamins among the most targeted. These vitamins are essential and help eliminate alcohol in the system.

Prior to drinking, take a high-quality vitamin B complex supplement. Also, snack on healthy foods like yogurt, pistachios, avocados and sunflower seeds.

7. Try Milk Thistle

Before you drink, and in the days following high alcohol consumption, take 150 milligrams of milk thistle twice a day. This is a relatively high dose and should only be done when you need a natural liver “detox.”

For general liver support, take 50 to 150 milligrams daily.

This powerful herb has been used for thousands of years to support liver detoxification and general health. In fact, it is recommended as a therapeutic treatment for certain diseases of the liver, including jaundice, hepatitis, fatty liver syndrome and damage due to alcohol.

Milk thistle’s high concentration of silymarin may help protect against certain types of cancer as well. As excessive alcohol consumption increases your risk of developing certain cancers, taking a high-quality milk thistle supplement is essential for heavy drinkers.

8. Consume Probiotics

Researchers from Germany identified that consuming large amounts of alcohol disrupts the absorption of nutrients, which causes digestive upset and bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.

Eating probiotic-rich foods like kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, apple cider vinegar and raw cheese — before and after — consuming alcohol may help to stave off the digestive upset and keep the gut’s bacterial balance in check. Also, a high-quality probiotic supplement that contains 50 billion CFU or higher is wise if you consume three or more drinks a week.

9. Try Magnesium

For those who drink, magnesium supplementation is an absolute necessity. Magnesium deficiency can lead to liver damage, and studies show that, like the B vitamins, many patients with liver disease are deficient in this essential nutrient.

Taking a high-quality magnesium supplement (420 milligrams for men and 320 milligrams for women) in addition to including magnesium-rich foods can help protect your liver, reduce your risk of stroke and heart attacks, lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, and much more.

10. Drink Coconut Water

While drinking, and after drinking, it is essential that you rehydrate and replenish electrolytes, particularly if you have vomited. An electrolyte imbalance can cause confusion, irritability, dizziness, muscle spasms, pain and digestive distress.

Don’t reach for a sports drink that is loaded with chemicals and sugar when coconut water is so much healthier. Coconut water is loaded with potassium and also contains small amounts of sodium, magnesium and calcium — essential when you need to rebalance after drinking.


  • Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening emergency. If you suspect it, call 911 immediately.
  • Do not leave a person alone when alcohol poisoning symptoms are present. If she passed out after drinking, perform the Bacchus maneuver to prevent choking.
  • Too much alcohol in the body suppresses life-support functions, including gag reflex, temperature, heart rate and breathing.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption is the fourth-leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
  • The amount of alcohol in a drink varies widely. Know the amount of alcohol you are consuming to prevent excessive intoxication.
  • Consuming alcohol and caffeine together increases the danger.
  • You can’t sleep off alcohol poisoning or take a walk or cold shower to recover.
  • Practice steps to prevent alcohol poisoning in the first place, including not drinking at all.

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