What Happens to Your Body During Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning, also referred to as alcohol overdose, is a serious problem that kills more than 2,200 people each year. Most of the people who succumb to alcohol poisoning are males between the ages of 35 and 64 years old. Understanding alcohol poisoning and its causes is the best way to protect yourself while drinking.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

When a person drinks too much alcohol and the body cannot process or eliminate it quickly enough, alcohol poisoning can result. Too much alcohol in the body can cause specific areas of the brain to shut down. These areas of the brain are in control of vital processes such as body temperature, breathing and heart rate. When these processes fail, a person can die from alcohol poisoning. The signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Bluish skin color, especially around the lips or finger tips
  • Coma
  • Confusion
  • Inability to wake up or be woken up by others
  • Irregular breathing (more than 10 seconds between each breath)
  • Low body temperature
  • Pale skin
  • Profoundly slow breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute or one breath every 7 seconds or more)
  • Seizure
  • Stupor
  • Vomiting

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning?

Most people who drink an occasional beer, cocktail or glass of wine in moderation will never experience alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning becomes a threat when a person consumes so much alcohol that the amount of alcohol in the body becomes toxic. This usually happens when a person’s blood alcohol concentration (also referred to as BAC or blood alcohol percentage) exceeds 0.30%. Many factors go into determining your blood alcohol concentration, including:

  • The type of alcohol you are drinking — a single serving of beer, on average, contains 5% alcohol. Malt liquor (7%), wine (12%) and hard alcohol like vodka and tequila (40%) have higher alcohol contents and can cause your blood alcohol concentration to rise faster.
  • Your height, weight and gender
  • The rate at which you are drinking
  • Whether you are eating anything or drinking water while drinking alcohol

Who Is Most at Risk of Alcohol Poisoning?

Although most people who die of alcohol poisoning are over the age of 35, underage drinkers are at an exceptionally high risk for alcohol poisoning due to a lack of drinking experience. When adolescents and young adults drink to excess, they often do not know how much their bodies can tolerate. They may also underestimate the effects of certain drinks, especially those that mask the taste of alcohol well, such as mixed drinks. Individuals who quit drinking for a significant period of time (4 weeks or more) and resume drinking at high levels may also be at greater risk for alcohol poisoning. Some medications can exacerbate the effects of alcohol, so talk to your doctor about whether it is safe for you to drink while taking any prescribed drugs. If you or someone you know may be suffering from alcohol poisoning, contact emergency medical personnel immediately. Sources Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Alcohol Poisoning Deaths Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.  National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much. 

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