What Is an Alcohol Overdose?
Alcohol is a drug that affects your central nervous system. It is classified as a depressant since it slows down your speech, movement, and reaction time. Most people consume alcohol because it has a relaxing effect and because drinking can be a social experience. However, if you consume large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, it can lead to significant health complications.
One serious health problem that can result from too much alcohol consumption is alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning. An alcohol overdose can happen when you drink too much alcohol at one time. For most people, consuming 21 drinks in a six-hour period can lead to an alcohol overdose.
If someone you know experiences an alcohol overdose, seek emergency medical help. This is a serious condition that can be life-threatening.
What Causes an Alcohol Overdose?
An alcohol overdose happens when the amount of alcohol in your body increases rapidly over a short period. This can occur as a result of consuming more alcohol than your body can process.
In general, the body can safely process one ounce of alcohol per hour. If you drink more than this, you may consume so much alcohol that it causes your body to stop working properly.
Alcohol depresses your nervous system, so you may experience serious complications if you drink at a rate that is much faster than your liver can process the alcohol (Mayo Clinic, 2010). These include:
- slowing or stopping of breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex, all of which are controlled by your nervous system
- cardiac arrest following a decrease in your body temperature, or hypothermia
- seizures as a result of low blood sugar levels
What Are the Risk Factors for an Alcohol Overdose?
Various risk factors can raise your chances of experiencing an alcohol overdose. The following are the most common risk factors.
Young adults are more likely to drink excessively, leading to an alcohol overdose.
Men are more likely than women to drink heavily, resulting in a greater risk for an alcohol overdose.
Your height and weight will determine how fast your body absorbs alcohol. People with thinner body types will absorb alcohol more rapidly.
If you have a high tolerance for alcohol or drink quickly by playing drinking games, you may experience alcohol poisoning.
People who binge drink (drink more than five drinks in an hour) are also at risk for alcohol overdose.
Other Health Conditions
If you have other health conditions, such as diabetes, you are at greater risk for having an alcohol overdose.
If you combine alcohol and drugs, you may not feel the effects of the alcohol. This prompts you to drink more.
What Are the Symptoms of an Alcohol Overdose?
Alcohol overdose occurs when a person has consumed too much alcohol. When this happens, symptoms may include:
- changes in mental state, including confusion
- slow or irregular breathing
- pale or blue skin
- a decrease in body temperature (hypothermia)
- passing out (unconsciousness)
It is important to note that not all of these symptoms must be present for alcohol poisoning to occur. If someone’s breathing has slowed to less than eight breaths per minute or if the person cannot be woken up, you should seek emergency medical care.
If you suspect an alcohol overdose and the victim is unconscious, do not leave the person alone. Be sure to place the person on his or her side.
An alcohol overdose can suppress a person’s gag reflex. Someone could choke, and possibly die, if he or she vomits while unconscious and lying on his or her back. If the vomit is inhaled into the lungs, it can cause a person to stop breathing.
You should remain with the unconscious person until emergency medical help arrives.
How Is Alcohol Overdose Diagnosed?
If you experience an overdose, your doctor will ask you about your drinking habits and health history. Your doctor may also perform additional tests. These may include blood tests (to determine your blood alcohol and glucose levels) and urine tests. Alcohol overdose can damage your pancreas, which digests food and monitors the levels of glucose in your blood. Low blood sugar is an indicator of alcohol poisoning.
How Is Alcohol Overdose Treated?
An alcohol overdose is typically treated in the emergency room. Your doctor will monitor your vital signs, including your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. If you develop more serious symptoms, such as seizures, your doctor may need to provide additional treatments. These may include:
- fluids or medications provided through your vein (intravenously)
- supplemental oxygen provided through a mask or tube inserted in your nose
- nutrients, such as thiamin or glucose, to prevent additional complications of alcohol poisoning, such as brain damage
What Is the Long-Term Outlook for Alcohol Overdose?
If you experience an alcohol overdose, your outcome will depend on the severity of your condition and how quickly you seek treatment.
Prompt treatment of alcohol overdose can help prevent these life-threatening health problems. However, severe alcohol overdose may cause seizures, resulting in brain damage if oxygen to the brain is cut off. This damage can be permanent.
If you survive an overdose without these complications, your long-term outlook will be very good.
How Can You Prevent an Alcohol Overdose?
An alcohol overdose can be avoided. If you want to prevent an alcohol overdose, take the following measures:
- Limit your alcohol intake or abstain from alcohol altogether.
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach.
- Seek help for drinking problems, such as addiction.