Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a result of drinking too much alcohol. It is important to know the signs and what to do.

The misperception that someone has ‘just passed out’ and ‘let him/her sleep it off’ is a belief that sometimes leads to death. Rapid binge drinking is especially dangerous, because of the possibility of drinking a fatal dose before becoming unconscious.

Your Responsibility

  • Know the danger signals.
  • Do not wait for all symptoms to be present.
  • Be aware that a person who has passed out may die.
  • If there is any suspicion of alcohol overdose, call 911 or the emergency number for help. Don’t try to guess the level of drunkeness.

Don't be afraid to seek medical help for someone who has had too much to drink. Don't worry that they may become angry or embarrassed - remember, you cared enough to help.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Confused
  • Irregular, slow or shallow breathing
  • Vomiting or choking while sleeping
  • Cold, pale or bluish skin
  • Cannot be awakened
  • No response to pinching the skin
  • Seizures

What to do

If someone shows any of the signs above, help is required immediately.

  • Call 911 or the emergency medical number.
  • Identify sober people to help.
  • Stay with the person.
  • Use the recovery position: Prop the person on his/her side to prevent choking.

  • Tell emergency medical technicians the symptoms and how much alcohol the person drank or if they had other substances.

Early Signs of possible issues

A person with any of the following symptoms is not simply ‘really drunk.’ These are early signs of possible alcohol poisoning:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty walking or standing up
  • Erratic behavior
  • Unable to make eye contact or hold a conversation
  • Feeling very ill or vomiting

If you notice any of these signs, intervene BEFORE the situation becomes life-threatening. Have sober friends stay with the person, and try to keep them from consuming more alcohol or other substances.

If the person is not in need of medical help, be sure to position the person on his/her side placing a pillow behind him/her to help prevent them from rolling on their back. Stay with the person and wake them frequently. Even though the person is sleeping, alcohol levels may continue to rise, causing the person to become unconscious, rather than asleep. If at any time you cannot wake the person, CALL 9-1-1. DO NOT ASSUME that they will stay in the position you placed them and be safe the next morning.

Alcohol Overdose Effects on the Body

Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing, the heart beat, and the gag reflex (prevents choking). A fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop these functions.

It is common for someone who drank excessive alcohol to vomit since alcohol is an irritant to the stomach. There is then the danger of choking on vomit, which could cause death by asphyxiation in a person who is not conscious because of intoxication.

After a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. A person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. As a result, breathing and heart beat can slow, become irregular, then stop; hypothermia (low body temperature) can lead to cardiac; and hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) can lead to seizures.

Even if the victim lives, alcohol overdose can lead to irreversible brain damage.


There are common myths about sobering which, in reality, don't work or could put the person in more danger.

  • Don't believe that giving the person black coffee or other liquids will help them sober up. Neither will 'walking it off.'
  • Don't have the person take a bath or shower - this could result in injury or hypothermia.
  • Don't just have the person sleep it off - they should be awake (or awakened frequently) so that they can be assessed for consciousness.

The only thing that reverses the effects of alcohol is time - something that is not available if you are suffering from alcohol poisoning. And many different factors affect the level of intoxication of an individual, so it's difficult to gauge exactly how much is too much.