What do the Key Signs of an Alcohol Overdose Include?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Alcohol is considered to be one of the most harmful substances. In 2012, nearly 6% of all worldwide deaths were attributable to alcohol.1 Binge drinking has become a serious problem in the U.S., and alcohol overdose, otherwise known as alcohol poisoning, is a dangerous condition that may threaten the drinker’s life. Knowing how to recognize when drinking has gone too far and what to do in an emergency overdose situation may save a life.

Alcohol Use in the U.S.

group of people out drinking togetherWhile widely perceived as a “safe” drug, due in large part to its legal status, alcohol is far from harmless. In fact, it is considered by many to be the deadliest substance out of all commonly abused recreational drugs.2 In the United States, nearly 6 people die every day due to alcohol poisoning.3 More than half of people age 12 or older reported past month alcohol use in 2015—an especially surprising proportion considering the legal drinking age is 21 years old.4

Having more than one alcoholic drink per session can have long-lasting effects on your body and brain, including the risk of developing an alcohol addiction. 6.4% of people age 12 or older struggled with a diagnosed alcohol use disorder in 2014, and this percentage jumps up to 20% in the college-aged population.4,5

Many Americans mistakenly believe that partying only on the weekends will keep them safe from alcohol-related harm, but this is far from true. In fact, drinking in large amounts, no matter how frequently, can put you at an increased risk of many detrimental effects.

What Is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is one of the most dangerous drinking-related patterns in the United States. People who binge drink are much more likely to suffer negative health consequences related to drinking, and this risk increases as the frequency of binge drinking increases.6–8 Almost 20% of U.S. adults binge drink, and this number increases even more among college students, with nearly 50% reporting binge drinking habits.9,10

Binge drinking is one of the most dangerous drinking-related patterns in the United States.

So, what exactly is binge drinking? Considering how dangerous it can be, it’s important to know how to recognize when you’re engaging in this type of risky drinking. Much to many people’s surprise, binge drinking is defined by your blood alcohol content, or BAC. Having a BAC of 0.08% or higher constitutes binge drinking, and this level is often reached by having 4 or more standard drinks for women, or 5 or more standard drinks for men, within 2 hours.11 This amount can vary according to each individual’s metabolism.

It is important to note that binge drinking isn’t necessarily defined by an easily quantified number of empty pint glasses, shots, or bottles left at the end of a session. Rather, it relies on tallying up the number of “standard drinks” that you’ve had. A cocktail ordered at a bar often has more than one standard drink in it, so tracking your alcohol intake throughout an evening can get tricky. One standard drink is defined as:12

  • 12 ounces of ~5% alcohol by volume (ABV) beer.
  • 5 ounces of ~12% ABV wine.
  • 5 ounces of ~40% ABV hard liquor.

Every drink that you have will affect your BAC, which can be measured within 30 to 70 minutes after drinking.13 As you drink more and more, you will become increasingly intoxicated, slowly losing control over your body and slowing your brain activity to potentially lethal levels:13–15

  • BAC 0.0–0.02: Relaxation, mood changes.
  • BAC 0.03–0.08: Slight reduction in muscle control, minor impairment in speech, attention, and memory, impaired vision, drowsiness.
  • BAC 0.09–0.20: Visible issues with body control, reduced mental capacities, slurred speech, blurred vision, memory problems, nausea or vomiting, impaired sexual functioning.
  • BAC 0.21–0.31+: Nearly complete loss of motor control, severe memory problems, vomiting, unconsciousness, emergency medical care needed, high risk of overdose or death.

Many people drink without considering the very serious health consequences that can arise from a binge. Unfortunately, this can mean long-term damage to their brain and body.

While widely perceived as a “safe” drug, due in large part to its legal status, alcohol is far from harmless.

What Are the Risks?

Like all other drugs of abuse, alcohol can have serious consequences for the user. There are physical issues associated with drinking, as well as psychological issues that can arise or be exacerbated by drinking. Despite the widespread misconception that alcohol is the safest recreational drug, it may cause even more damage than most illegal substances.

Some physical health consequences of problematic drinking include:16

  • Heart problems.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Liver damage.
  • Stroke.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Immune problems.
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, or breast.

The damage incurred can even extend to your mental health. Some cognitive and psychological consequences of binge drinking include:17–21

  • Psychiatric disorders.
  • Behavioral problems.
  • Depressed mood.
  • Poor impulse control.
  • Poor cognitive performance.
  • Increased mental distress, such as anxiety, depression, or emotional problems.
  • Lower health-related quality of life.
  • Problems with verbal declarative memory.

man being prevented from drunk drivingOn top of these direct effects, alcohol abuse also comes with a host of indirect, or secondary, consequences. Every 51 minutes a person in the U.S. dies because of a drunk driver.22 Drunk driving accidents account for nearly 1/3 of all vehicular deaths in the U.S.22 Driving after drinking can be a deadly mistake, and it is not worth the legal and emotional toll it can have on yourself or others.

In addition, because alcohol impairs your judgement, you may be more likely to engage in unsafe sex. Not using a condom may seem like a fine idea when you’re drunk, but ultimately it could be a grave mistake. Having unprotected sex increases your risk of unplanned pregnancy or contracting an STD, including HIV/AIDS, which can affect the rest of your life.

Can You Overdose on Alcohol?

When a person drinks too much or combines alcohol with another depressant (like an opioid or benzodiazepine medication), synergistic impairment of certain brain processes may result. Should this progress to a point where vital life functions like breathing and heart rate significantly slow, a person can easily die. Often, when a person reaches a seriously dangerous point of alcohol poisoning, they are likely to be unconscious and unable to take care of themselves, despite needing immediate medical help. Recognizing the signs of an overdose may help you save a person’s life.

Some warning signs of alcohol poisoning include:15

  • Unconsciousness.
  • Vomiting.
  • Extreme confusion.
  • Seizures.
  • Hypothermia (extremely low body temperature).
  • Slow, irregular, or stopped breathing.
  • Blue tint to skin or lips.

If you are with a person who displays any of the above symptoms, seek medical help immediately. After calling 911, closely monitor their condition and report all observations to the emergency medical crew upon arrival. An unconscious person should be put on their side to reduce their risk of choking on their own vomit. An overdosing person should never be left alone.

What to Do

In many cases, alcohol poisoning doesn’t go away with time. Instead, alcohol will continue to enter the bloodstream even after a person has passed out, putting them at further increased risk of death by overdose. No amount of coffee, water, cold showers, food, or “walking it off” will reduce the person’s risk of incurring long-term damage after they’ve reached the point of an alcohol overdose.

Alcohol will continue to enter the bloodstream even after a person has passed out, putting them at further increased risk of death by overdose.If you suspect that someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose, do not wait to seek help. The longer you wait, the higher the risk that they will die. Calling 911 as soon as you suspect alcohol poisoning may save that person’s life. Once medical personnel arrive, they will closely monitor the overdosing individual and treat them accordingly. They may insert a breathing tube into the person’s mouth or windpipe to assist with breathing, fit them with an intravenous (IV) drip that will get essential fluids into their body, or insert a catheter into their urethra to keep them from urinating on themselves.23

Even with proper professional medical care, alcohol poisoning can be extremely fatal. The only true way to prevent an alcohol overdose is to reduce or stop your dangerous drinking habits.

Addiction Treatment

For some people, reducing or stopping their drinking habits may seem impossible. Many people find that once they fall into these dangerous drinking habits, it can be daunting to try to drink in moderation, or to try to stop drinking altogether. Coupled with the potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, many problem drinkers find that quitting on their own is extremely difficult, not to mention dangerous.

Professional treatment programs know what to expect when it comes to recovering from alcohol abuse. They know how to safely manage withdrawal symptoms, what types of treatment have the strongest scientific support, and how to plan for adequate aftercare once the patient completes a treatment program. Quitting alone is dangerous and difficult. Quitting with professional help will ensure the safest, most comfortable recovery and best opportunity for long-term success. Preventing future overdoses starts with treatment and learning how to manage your cravings.

Dependence and Withdrawal

As a person drinks more and more frequently, or in higher and higher doses, they may find that they feel pretty awful when they do not drink alcohol. This is an indication that they have become dependent on alcohol, meaning their body is so accustomed to having alcohol in its system that it struggles to function normally without it. Alcohol dependence is a major risk factor for developing an addiction.

man dependent on drinking alcoholAlcohol dependence is marked by the experience of withdrawal symptoms when the person stops drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly, so it is extremely important that you get professional medical care during this time. Detoxing from alcohol means clearing out all of the alcohol from your body by remaining abstinent. As your body and brain adjust back to a sober baseline you may experience severely unpleasant withdrawal effects:24

  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Clammy skin
  • Body tremors

Withdrawal symptoms may arise within hours of the last drink, tend to peak within 24 to 72 hours, and may last for weeks, depending on the severity of the drinking problem.24 In extreme cases, a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome may present, known as delirium tremens, which may include:24

  • High fever.
  • Extreme confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Agitation.
  • Seizures, which can be deadly.

Every person will react differently to alcohol withdrawal, depending on many individual factors. Because the alcohol detox process can be so unpredictable, the safest way to work through detox is in the hands of a professional treatment program that can offer adequate medical care. Professional programs provide a safe, comfortable, and closely supervised environment, and staff physicians will be able to administer benzodiazepines or other anticonvulsant medications to minimize the risk of seizure and otherwise help you through the discomforts of detox and withdrawal.

On top of managing dangerous or uncomfortable symptoms, treatment programs can help you develop your abstinence skills. It takes practice to learn how to resist cravings to drink, and treatment programs offer individual and group therapy that will help you learn how to live a satisfying life without alcohol. Relapse prevention skills like identifying and avoiding high-risk situations are some of the important things that professional treatment can help you with.

Take Action

Problematic patterns of drinking, including binges, can put you at risk of an alcohol overdose. The long-term consequences that alcohol poisoning can have on your body and mind are simply not worth it. Reaching out for help is your best bet at safely overcoming alcoholism, so don’t wait until it’s too late to call. Take the next step and reclaim your life.


References

  1. World Health Organization. (2014). Global status report on alcohol and health. World Health Organization.
  2. Lachenmeier, D. K. & Rehm, J. (2015). Comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs using the margin of exposure approach. Scientific Reports, 5. 1-7.
  3. Kanny, D., Brewer, R. D., Mesnick, J. B., Paulozzi, L. J., Naimi, T. S., & Lu, H. (2015). Vital signs: alcohol poisoning deaths – United States, 2010-2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63(53). 1238-1242.
  4. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health(HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51).
  5. Blanco, C.; Okuda, M.; Wright, C. et al. (2008). Mental health of college students and their non-college-attending peers: Results from the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65 (12). 1429 –1437.
  6. Wechsler, H., Davenport, A., Dowdall, G., Moeykens, B., & Castillo, S., (1994). Health and behavioral consequences of binge drinking in college: A national survey of students at 140 campuses. Journal of the American Medical Association, 272. 1672-1677.
  7. Wechsler, H., Dowdall, G. W., Maenner, G., Gledhill-Hoyt, J., & Lee, H. (1998). Changes in binge drinking and related problems among American college students between 1993 and 1997. Journal of American College Health, 47. 57-68.
  8. Wechsler, H., Lee, J., Kuo, M., & Lee, H. (2000). College binge drinking in the 1990s: A continuing problem – Results of the Harvard School of Public Health 1999 College Alcohol Study. Journal of American College Health, 48. 199-210.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Excessive drinking costs U.S. $223.5 billion. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
  10. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. College Drinking. National Institute of Health.
  11. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking levels defined. National Institute of Health.
  12. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a standard drink? National Institute of Health.
  13. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The ABCs of BAC: a guide to understanding blood alcohol concentration and alcohol impairment.
  14. Brown University. (2015). Alcohol and your body.
  15. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Alcohol overdose: the dangers of drinking too much. National Institutes of Health.
  16. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2010). Beyond hangovers: Understanding alcohol’s impact on your health. 15-7604.
  17. Robin, R. W., Long, J. C., Rasmussen, J. K., Albaugh, B., & Goldman, D. (1998). Relationship of binge drinking to alcohol dependence, other psychiatric disorders, and behavioral problems in and American Indian tribe. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 22(2). 518-523.
  18. Townshend, J. M. & Duka, T. (2005). Binge drinking, cognitive performance and mood in a population of young social drinkers. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 29(3). 317-325.
  19. Poulton, A., Mackenzie, C., Harrington, K., Borg, S., & Hester, R. (2016). Cognitive control over immediate reward in binge alcohol drinkers. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 40(2). 429-437.
  20. Okoro, C. A., Brewer, R. D., Naimi, T. S., Moriarty, D. G., Giles, W. H., & Mokdad, A. H. (2004). Binge drinking and health-related quality of life: do popular perceptions match reality? American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 26(3). 230-233.
  21. Parada, M., Corral, M., Caamano-Isorna, F., Mota, N., Crego, A., Holguin, S. R., & Cadaveira, F. (2011). Binge drinking and declarative memory in university students. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35(8). 1475-1484.
  22. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.
  23. National Health Services. (2016). Alcohol poisoning.
  24. S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Alcohol withdrawal. MedlinePlus.
  25. Myrick, H. & Anton, R. F. (1998). Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal. Alcohol Health & Research World, 22(1). 38-43.
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