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Treatment For Alcohol Poisoning

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

January 29, 2019

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used and abused drugs in the United States. Though it is widely used in social sectors, it is not without its risks. Drinking in excessive amounts can cause dangerous side-effects like alcohol poisoning that can lead to an increased risk of alcohol overdose.

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Overdose from alcohol, or alcohol poisoning, occurs when a person consumes a large amount of alcohol (binge drinking) in a short time. Due to this, the body is not able to process and eliminate it properly. Thus, the body’s delicate systems become overrun; it is unable to break down and eliminate the alcohol from your body’s bloodstream and the body is essentially poisoned.

This increase in your blood alcohol content (BAC) impairs your brain function, specifically the areas that are responsible for controlling your breathing, heart rate, and temperature —your critical life-support functions.

The National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that “an overdose of alcohol occurs when a person has a blood alcohol content (or BAC) sufficient to produce impairments that increase the risk of harm. Overdoses can range in severity, from problems with balance and slurred speech to coma or even death.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 6 people die every day from alcohol poisoning in the U.S.; that’s 2,200 deaths each year.

The following are the signs of alcohol poisoning.

  • Mental confusion
  • Impaired responses such as the gag reflex
  • Difficulty maintaining consciousness or the inability to wake up
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Respiratory depression marked by either slow (less than 8 breaths per minute) or irregular (10 or more seconds pass between their breaths) breathing.
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Clammy skin or hypothermia (low body temperature) characterized by bluish skin color and/or paleness.
  • Coma

A person does not have to experience every or all symptom in order to have alcohol poisoning. Certain factors can influence your risk, these include age, gender, ethnicity, current health, the amount of food in your system, the percentage of alcohol in your beverage, and if you’re using any other drugs concurrently with the alcohol.

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What To Do If You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning

Seek help right away. Drinking to excess can be exceedingly dangerous and a potentially life-threatening situation. According to the CDC, “very high levels of alcohol in the body can shut down critical areas of the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature, resulting in death.” Alcohol poisoning can result in long-term damage, including brain damage.

If a person is suffering from acute alcohol poisoning, they need medical services immediately. If you think that you’re experiencing this, call 911. You should not be alone; you could lose consciousness, so call for help before you become impaired any further.

If you are with a person who may be suffering an alcohol overdose, or if you even suspect a person may have alcohol poisoning, you should still seek help. Remember: a person who has consumed alcohol to this extent will not be able to comprehend the circumstances or respond accordingly with the situation at hand; it is for this reason that you must intervene and seek help, even if they ask you not to.

As hard as it might be, don’t worry about this angering the person now or at a later time. Right now, you must only think about their health. Acting fast can be the difference between saving a life or preventing permanent damage.

It is also imperative to share any and all information that you’re aware of that pertains to the person’s health and substance abuse. This includes any past or current illness or disease, the amount consumed, and if there were any other substances (drugs; either illegal or prescribed) taken along with the alcohol. Don’t worry about breaking their trust, this information may help save their life.

While you’re waiting for emergency services to arrive, there are several things you can do.

  • Move any alcohol or other drugs away from them
  • If they’re able, get them to drink water
  • Keep them warm
  • Try to keep the person in a sitting position and awake, if possible
  • If they do pass out, roll them onto their side (recovery position)
  • Don’t leave them alone. Stay with them and monitor their symptoms, especially their breathing

Common Myths About Dealing With Alcohol Poisoning

Unfortunately, there are a handful of common myths that revolve around what to do if this situation arises. Too many times those around a person think it’s best just to leave them alone and let them sober up or “sleep it off.” Not only do the following efforts not work, but they could in fact actually make the situation more dangerous.


  • walk them around; alcohol is a depressant and suppresses the brain’s function—their sense of balance and coordination may be impaired, so this increases the risk of accidents.
  • give them coffee; this will only further dehydrate them, making it even harder for the body to detoxify.
  • try and make them vomit, as this could cause them to choke on or inhale their vomit.
  • allow them to lie on their belly or back; due to the suppression of their gag reflex, if they vomit this can cause them to aspirate (inhale) their vomit into their lungs and cause a dangerous, and at times fatal, interruption of their breathing (asphyxiation).
  • put them in a cold shower or bath; a decreased body temperature is one of the primary symptoms of alcohol poisoning, this will only accelerate this process.
  • let them drink more alcohol or do any other illicit drugs. Keep in mind, at this point a person is not thinking clearly, and if they are still conscious they may attempt to keep drinking and abusing substances.

How Is This Condition Treated?

When a person first arrives in the emergency department, the staff initially works towards stabilizing the alcohol-poisoned individual. First, they will asses the person’s respiratory functioning and address it accordingly. The attending physician will likely order blood and urine tests to screen for alcohol toxicity, the presence of other drugs, and for other conditions – such as low blood sugar – caused by alcohol poisoning.

Staff will then closely monitor the individual as the alcohol makes its way out of the person. To aid in this safely happening, they will likely administer several of the following treatments as supportive care:

  • Oxygen Therapy: Due to respiratory depression a person’s blood oxygen levels may be low. The emergency room staff may use a nasal cannula (a small nosepiece delivering a low flow of oxygen), a non-rebreather mask (a mask that delivers higher concentrations of oxygen); or in extreme cases, mechanical ventilation.
  • Intravenous (IV) Fluids are used to help fight dehydration, balance electrolytes, treat hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and supplement the person with vitamins. A solution containing some or all of the following may be administered: saline, dextrose, magnesium sulfate, folate, thiamine, and multivitamins. The solution may vary depending on the level of a person’s alcohol abuse; if the hospital determines that a person suffers from an alcohol addiction certain components may be more essential.
  • Intubation: A tube is inserted through a patient’s mouth into their windpipe; this assists in breathing by opening up the airway and clearing any blockages.
  • Clearing Out The Stomach: The medical staff will insert a small tube to the stomach via the nose or mouth; they then flush fluids into the stomach and pump it out.
  • Catheter Support: If a person is incontinent due to their condition, they may receive a catheter, which is a thin tube inserted in the bladder to drain the urine directly from the body to a bag.
  • Hemodialysis: In severe circumstances, a patient has a BAC so high that the medical team may turn to this treatment to speed up the removal of the alcohol from the blood. A National Institutes of Health article describes this as the “best method to rapidly remove both toxic acid metabolites and parent alcohols, and it plays a fundamental role in treating severely poisoned patients.”
    This method mechanically filters out the waste and toxins by pumping your blood into the machine (dialyzer); it is then filtered and pumped back into your body.

Sometimes, especially in young people who don’t know any better, a person may consume other types of alcohol such as methanol or isopropyl. This may be either by accident or in pursuit of the effects of what is in alcoholic beverages (ethanol). Hemodialysis would also be utilized in these circumstances.

  • Medications: Certain symptoms of acute toxicity may require pharmacological support, such as an antiemetic, which is a medication used to treat nausea and vomiting.
    Currently, another, Metadoxine, is being studied as an alternative method for eliminating ethanol from the body.
  • CT Scan: If the physician fears that the alcohol poisoning has been so severe as to cause brain damage, a CT scan may be ordered; this produces 3-D images of your brain through x-rays.

After the toxicity has been controlled and the immediate danger has passed, a person will likely be evaluated to determine if there is a present risk for alcohol abuse, addiction, or withdrawal. If this is the case, additional medical and behavioral treatment may ensue.

Get Help To Change Your Behavior Today

Don’t wait until your drinking becomes this dangerous to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. If you’re worried about your drinking habits, or those of someone you love, please take the time to contact us here at today. Your call is confidential and we can offer you compassionate assistance before things go too far.

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