Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks a toxic amount of alcohol, usually over a short period of time.
This is often known as binge drinking.
Poisoning is exposure to a substance that can damage your health and put your life in danger.
Alcohol poisoning can also occur if a person drinks household products that contain alcohol (children sometimes drink these by accident).
What to look for
The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- seizures (fits)
- slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
- cold, clammy, pale-bluish skin caused by a dangerous drop in body temperature (hypothermia)
In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can cause unconsciousness, coma and death.
What to do
If you suspect alcohol poisoning, dial 999 immediately to request an ambulance. Never leave a person to ‘sleep it off’.
Levels of alcohol can continue to rise so a person’s symptoms could suddenly become much more severe.
After being admitted to hospital, the person will be carefully monitored until the alcohol has left their system.
Read more about the treatment of alcohol poisoning.
How it can occur
Every time you drink alcohol, your liver has to filter it out of your blood. Alcohol is absorbed quickly into your body (much quicker than food), but the body can only process around one unit of alcohol an hour.
If you drink a lot of alcohol over a short space of time, such as on a night out, your body won’t have time to process it all. The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream, known as your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), will rise.
The higher your BAC, the more of an adverse effect alcohol has on the functions of your body. For example if you had:
- a BAC of 80 milligrams (mg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres (dl) of blood (the drink driving limit), you would experience some loss of co-ordination and an altered perception of the environment
- a BAC of 100-200mg per dl, you would experience impaired judgment, slurred speech, loss of memory and involuntary movement of your eyes
- a BAC of 200-400mg per dl, you would have double vision, feel sick, have hypothermia and severely slurred speech
- a BAC of over 400mg per dl, you would have severe breathing difficulties and go into a coma followed by death
At very high levels, alcohol affects the nerves that control automatic functions, such as breathing, heartbeat and your gag reflex (which stops you from choking).
Excessive alcohol consumption can slow or even shut down these functions, causing you to stop breathing and become unconscious.
How common is alcohol poisoning?
In 2012-13, just over 297,000 people were admitted to hospital for conditions or injuries related solely to alcohol consumption.
Of these, just under 34,000 admissions were the result of alcohol poisoning, with around 50,500 admissions due to alcohol-related liver disease.
Mental and behavioural disorders caused by alcohol consumption were the most common alcohol-related diagnosis in 2012-13, resulting in 198,600 hospital admissions.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning
The level of alcohol in a person’s blood can continue to rise for up to 30-40 minutes after their last drink. This can cause their symptoms to suddenly worsen.
It’s important to be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning.
Signs of alcohol poisoning
Signs a person may have alcohol poisoning include:
- severely slurred speech
- loss of co-ordination
- irregular or slow breathing
- hypothermia (pale or blue-tinged skin caused by low body temperature)
- stupor (being conscious but unresponsive)
- passing out and being unconscious
If a person is poisoned by alcohol they could:
- choke on their vomit
- stop breathing
- have a heart attack
- inhale vomit, leading to fatal lung damage
- become severely dehydrated, which can cause permanent brain damage in extreme cases
- develop more severe hypothermia
- have seizures (fits) as a result of lowered blood sugar levels
Repeated vomiting and retching can lead to the vomiting of blood as a result of a torn blood vessel (Mallory-Weiss tear) at the junction of the stomach and gullet.
In the most severe cases, alcohol poisoning can lead to coma, brain damage and death.
Other related risks
Drinking too much alcohol can affect a person’s judgement and put them in situations where their health and safety are at risk. For example, they may:
- have an accident or get injured
- become involved in violent or antisocial behaviour
- have unsafe sex, which can lead to an unplanned pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- lose personal possessions
Treatment for alcohol poisoning
Someone who has alcohol poisoning won’t be able to help themselves.
When you’re drinking with a group of people, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning and know what to do when someone has had too much to drink.
Following the advice below could save someone’s life.
What you should do
If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, dial 999 and ask for an ambulance. While you’re waiting:
- try to keep them sitting up and awake
- give them water if they can drink it
- if they’ve passed out, lie them on their side in the recovery position and check they’re breathing properly
- keep them warm
- stay with them and monitor their symptoms
What you shouldn’t do
There are many myths about how to ‘sober someone up’ when they’re drunk, most of which are wrong and can even be dangerous. You shouldn’t:
- give them coffee because it will dehydrate them more
- leave them alone or lying on their back, even if they’re asleep
- walk them around
- put them under a cold shower
- let them drink any more alcohol
Someone with alcohol poisoning needs to be taken to hospital.
Medical staff at hospital will closely monitor the person until all the alcohol has left their system. They may also need to:
- insert a tube into their mouth and windpipe (intubation) to open the airway, remove any blockages and help with breathing
- fit an intravenous drip, which goes directly into a vein, to top up their water, blood sugar and vitamin levels
- fit a catheter (thin tube) to their bladder to drain urine straight into a bag so they don’t wet themselves
- pump their stomach by flushing fluids through a tube inserted into their nose or mouth
Preventing alcohol poisoning
Alcohol passes quickly into your bloodstream. The physical and mental effects can occur very suddenly.
To avoid getting drunk and risking alcohol poisoning, it helps to be aware of how much you’re drinking and the effect this could have on your body.
The effects of alcohol
Around 1-2 units
- your heart rate will speed up and your blood vessels will expand
- you get the warm, sociable feeling associated with moderate drinking
Around 4-6 units
- your decision making and judgement will start to be affected, making you lose your inhibitions and become more reckless
- the cells in your nervous system will start to be affected, making you feel lightheaded
- your co-ordination will be affected and your reaction time may be slower
Around 8-9 units
- your reaction times will be much slower
- your speech will be slurred
- your vision will begin to lose focus
- your liver won’t be able to remove all of the alcohol overnight, so it’s likely you’ll wake up with a hangover
At this stage you should seriously consider not drinking any more alcohol.
If you do:
Around 10-12 units
- your co-ordination will be seriously impaired, placing you at high risk of having an accident
- you may stagger around or feel unstable on your feet
- you’ll feel drowsy or dizzy
- the amount of alcohol in your body will begin to reach toxic (poisonous) levels
- you may need to go to the toilet more often as your body attempts to quickly pass the alcohol out of your body in your urine
- you’ll be dehydrated in the morning, and probably have a severe headache
- the excess alcohol in your system may upset your digestive system, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or indigestion
More than 12 units
- you’re at high risk of developing alcohol poisoning, particularly if you’re drinking lots of units in a short space of time
- the alcohol can begin to interfere with the automatic functions of your body, such as your breathing, heart rate and gag reflex
- you’re at risk of losing consciousness
Tips for drinking less
Below is some advice about how to drink less alcohol and avoid getting alcohol poisoning.
- Replace some of your drinks with non-alcoholic or low-alcohol drinks.
- If you drink mainly when you go out, try going out later or having your first drink later.
- If you drink mainly at home, buy non-alcoholic or low-alcohol alternatives.
- Buy smaller glasses and be careful about how much you pour.
- If you drink pints in the pub or cans of beer, remember lower-strength lagers and beers are available.
- If you use alcohol to ‘wind down’ after a hard day, find alternatives, such as exercise classes or relaxation techniques.
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach.
- Don’t mix different alcoholic drinks, such as beer with wine, or spirits with beer.
Keeping a drink diary
If you’re not sure how much you’re drinking on a daily basis, try keeping a drink diary. Every day make a note of:
- all the alcoholic drinks you had
- how many units of alcohol you drank (you can track your drinking from your mobile phone or use the guide to alcohol units)
- what time you had them and where you were
This should give you a good idea of how much you’re drinking, the situations in which you drink and where you could start to cut down.