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Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Teen girl leaning over the toilet due to experiencing alcohol poisoning symptoms  

Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that can occur when someone drinks too much alcohol too quickly. Alcohol poisoning is often associated with binge drinking. Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 2010 to 2012, an average of about six people died every day from alcohol poisoning in the United States, or about 2,200 every year. Each year, about 5% of these deaths occurred in people aged 15 to 24 years.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone consumes enough alcohol over a short enough period of time to cause toxicity. Normally, when moderate amounts of alcohol are ingested, the body slowly metabolizes or breaks it down so that it can be eliminated. When a large amount of alcohol is consumed very quickly, the body is not able to metabolize it any faster, so toxic or poisonous levels of alcohol can build up in the blood.

How Do You Get Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can happen any time a person has a large amount of alcohol over a short period of time. For example, binge drinking is generally defined as four standard drinks over two hours for women or five drinks over two hours for men. Everyone’s body processes alcohol differently, and many individual factors play a role in how someone breaks down alcohol. Bodyweight, sex, overall health, and other factors may contribute to how easily someone may become poisoned by alcohol.

A standard drink has about 14 grams of pure alcohol. The following types of alcohol equate to one standard drink (these can vary based on the alcohol percentage):

  • 12 ounces of light beer
  • Eight to nine ounces of malt liquor
  • Five ounces of wine
  • A 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is associated with several signs and symptoms and can be fatal in severe cases. Some people’s symptoms may be minor, but some people may experience severe enough symptoms to necessitate emergency medical treatment. Some signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Decreased coordination
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Irregular or slowed breathing
  • Incoherency
  • Vomiting
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Seizures
  • Death

Factors Contributing to Alcohol Poisoning

Many individual factors can cause someone to be more or less likely to develop alcohol toxicity. Some factors that contribute to alcohol poisoning include:

  • How quickly a person consumes alcohol
  • How much alcohol content each drink has
  • Quantity of alcoholic drinks consumed
  • Presence of alcohol use disorder or binge drinking disorder
  • Current alcohol tolerance: Someone with high alcohol tolerance may have a higher risk of alcohol poisoning since they may not feel the alcohol effects until a large amount of alcohol is consumed.
  • Age: Young adults are more prone to alcohol poisoning in general.
  • Body size: Smaller people may have a higher risk of alcohol poisoning when drinking the same amount as a larger person.

Teenage Alcohol Poisoning Statistics

Alcohol is commonly used in teenagers and young adults before reaching the legal drinking age. Underage drinking has many consequences for this age group:

  • About one-third of teenagers have had alcohol by the time they reach age 15.
  • By age 18, 60% of teenagers have had one drink.
  • Binge drinking is the method of alcohol intake about 90% of the time for persons 12 to 20 years old.
  • In people less than 21 years old, it’s estimated that almost 4400 deaths each year occur due to drinking, most of them due to car crashes, but with many related to alcohol poisoning, falls, homicide and suicide while drinking.

How to Treat Alcohol Poisoning

Most of the time, alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and needs to be treated by professionals. Medical staff will monitor heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and other vital signs and watch for seizure development or other serious symptoms.

Usually, hydration with intravenous fluids is given as well as extra oxygen through a nasal mask or tube. Sometimes, extra nutrition is provided as well as various medications to stop seizures, control heart rate and blood pressure and to help a person’s body functions return to normal.

If you witness someone who may have alcohol poisoning, call emergency services, do not force them to drink or eat anything unless they are able to and do not leave them alone.

Alcohol Poisoning: Fact vs Fiction

Some people may not be aware of how dangerous alcohol poisoning can be. It can be fatal in some cases, especially if not recognized quickly and treated as an emergency situation. Here are several myths regarding alcohol use and alcohol poisoning:

Myth: Drinking beer or wine will not make someone as drunk as drinking hard liquor.

Fact: Any type of alcohol has the potential to cause drunkenness and alcohol poisoning, especially when consumes very quickly. Sometimes it is physically more difficult to drink large amounts of beer or wine compared with shots of hard liquor, but all alcohol can be problematic if consumed too fast.

Myth: If someone can “hold their liquor” they won’t face the consequences of drinking too much.

Fact: Actually, when people have a high alcohol tolerance, they may be more at risk for alcohol poisoning since they may not feel the effects of alcohol until they have consumed very large amounts.

Myth: Drinking in moderation is always safe.

Fact: Moderate drinking may mean different things to different people. If someone is more prone to alcohol poisoning (for example, smaller body size, certain health conditions previous episode of alcohol poisoning, etc.), drinking a moderate amount may cause poisoning. It’s important to remember that every individual processes alcohol differently, and many other health factors can contribute to how toxic alcohol can be to a person.

Myth: Drinking coffee or other forms of caffeine can help someone “sober up.”

Fact: Caffeine can cause dehydration, which can only make alcohol-related dehydration worse. Severe dehydration can lead to brain and heart damage, so it is dangerous to try and get someone to drink coffee if they are experiencing alcohol toxicity.

Addressing Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

If you are concerned that your teenager is dealing with an alcohol problem, Next Generation Village can help you decide on the most appropriate alcohol treatment program. Contact us today to learn about individualized treatment plans.


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