Alcohol poisoning

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Poisoning happens when you take into your body a substance that damages your cells and organs and injures your health. Alcohol poisoning results from drinking a toxic amount of alcohol, usually over a short amount of time (known as binge drinking).

Rarely, alcohol poisoning can occur if you accidentally drink household products that contain alcohol.

What is a standard drink?

In Ireland a standard drink has about 10 grams of pure alcohol in it. In the UK a standard drink, also called a unit of alcohol, has about 8 grams of pure alcohol.

Here are some examples of a standard drink.

  • A pub measure of spirits (35.5ml)
  • A small glass of wine (12.5% volume)
  • A half pint of normal beer
  • An alcopop (275ml bottle)

A bottle of wine at 12.5% alcohol contains about seven standard drinks.

What are the low-risk drinking guidelines?

Low risk weekly guidelines for adults are:

  • up to 11 standard drinks in a week for women, and
  • up to 17 standard drinks in a week for men.

Drinks should be spaced out over the week, not consumed in one sitting. Drinking more than the safe levels may cause harm.

 Remember, drinks measures are not always the same. What you get in a pub and what you pour for yourself could be very different.

These weekly limits do not apply to teenagers or to people who are pregnant, ill, run-down or on medication. It is healthier for teenagers not to drink alcohol.

Binge drinking

Binge drinking is drinking an excessive amount of alcohol in a short space of time. This is at least six standard drinks in single session.

You should not 'save up' your "weekly allowance " of standard drinks and drink them all at once - binge drinking is dangerous and puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning.

What happens

Every time you drink alcohol, your liver has to filter out the poisonous alcohol from your blood. Alcohol is absorbed quickly into your body (much quicker than food), but the body can only process around one standard drink of alcohol in one hour.

If you drink a lot of alcohol over a short space of time, such as on a night out, your body does not have time to process all the alcohol and the amount in your bloodstream, known as your blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, can become dangerously high.

When the amount of alcohol in your blood gets too high, it can have a serious effect on the mental and physical functions of your body. Alcohol affects the nerves that control automatic actions like breathing, your 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 unconsciousness.

What to look out for

The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • seizures (fits)
  • slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
  • pale, bluish skin
  • cold and clammy skin

In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can cause unconsciousness. For more information, see Alcohol poisoning - symptoms.

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, you should dial 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Outlook

Treatment for alcohol poisoning usually occurs in hospital. Hospital staff will monitor a person until all the alcohol has left their system. They may also need to pump their stomach, help them to breathe and give them fluids and vitamins via a drip.

Most people recover from alcohol poisoning, especially if they are cared for properly and taken to hospital. However, in some cases excessive alcohol consumption can lead to accidental death.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

The level of alcohol in a person's blood can continue to rise for up to 30-40 minutes after a person's last drink. This can cause their symptoms to suddenly worsen.

You should always be alert for signs that somebody has progressed from being drunk to being poisoned from alcohol.

Signs of alcohol poisoning

Signs a person may have alcohol poisoning include:

  • confusion
  • loss of co-ordination
  • vomiting
  • irregular or slow breathing
  • blue-tinged or pale skin
  • low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • stupor (being conscious but unresponsive)
  • unconsciousness (passing out)

Complications

After being poisoned by alcohol, the person 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
  • get hypothermia
  • suffer seizures because of lowered blood sugar levels

In the most severe cases, alcohol poisoning can lead to coma, brain damage and even death.

Other related risks

Drinking too much alcohol can affect the person's judgement and put them in situations that can risk their health and safety. For example, they may:

  • have an accident or get injured
  • get involved in violent or antisocial behaviour
  • have unsafe sex, which can lead to an unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
  • lose personal possessions

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

How to care for a person with alcohol poisoning

Someone suffering from alcohol poisoning will not be aware enough to help themselves. When you are with a group of people drinking, it is important to look out for the signs 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 are waiting:

  • try to keep them sitting up and awake
  • give them water if they can drink it
  • if they have passed out, lie them on their side in the recovery position and check they are breathing properly (see Accidents and first aid: recovery position for a detailed explanation of how to do this)
  • keep them warm
  • stay with them and monitor their symptoms

What you should not do

There are many urban myths about ways to 'sober someone up' when they are drunk, most of which are wrong and can even be dangerous. You should not:

  • give them coffee - it will make them more dehydrated
  • leave them alone or lying on their back, even if they are asleep
  • walk them around
  • put them under a cold shower
  • let them drink any more alcohol

Hospital treatment

When someone has alcohol poisoning, they need to be taken to hospital.

Medical staff at hospital will monitor the person's state until all the alcohol has left their system. They may also need to:

  • insert a tube into their windpipe to help them breathe
  • fit an intravenous drip (which goes directly into a vein) to top up their water, blood sugar and vitamin levels
  • fit a catheter (tube) to their bladder to drain urine straight into a bag so they do not wet themselves
  • pump their stomach by flushing fluids through a tube inserted into their nose or mouth

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Alcohol passes quickly into your bloodstream. The physical and mental effects on your body can happen very suddenly.

To stop yourself from getting drunk and risking alcohol poisoning, it helps to be aware of how much you are drinking and the effect this could have on your body.

The effects of alcohol

Around 1-2 standard drinks

  • your heart rate will speed up and your blood vessels will expand
  • you get the warm, sociable feeling associated with moderate drinking

Around 3-5 standard drinks

  • 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 6-7 standard drinks

  • your reaction times will be much slower
  • your speech will begin to slur
  • your vision will begin to lose focus
  • your liver will be unable to remove all of the alcohol overnight, so it is likely you will wake with a hangover

Around 8-10 standard drinks

  • 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 will 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 with your urine
  • you will be dehydrated in the morning, and probably have a severe headache
  • the excess of alcohol in your system may upset your digestive system, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or indigestion

More than 10 standard drinks

  • you're at a high risk of developing alcohol poisoning, particularly if you are 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 are at risk of losing consciousness

Some tips for drinking less

  • 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, trying buying non-alcoholic alternatives.
  • Buy smaller glasses and watch how much you pour.
  • 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.
  • Avoid mixing different alcoholic drinks.

Keeping a drink diary

If you are not sure how much you are 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 you drank
  • what time you had them
  • where you were

This should give you a good idea of how much you are drinking, the situations in which you drink and where you could start to cut down.

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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