Alcohol poisoning 

Introduction 

Media last reviewed: 08/04/2013

Next review due: 08/04/2015

Alcohol limits explained

The recommended daily alcohol limits are:

  • no more than three to four units a day for men
  • no more than two to three units a day for women

A unit is equivalent to half a can of export lager (ABV 5%), a small shot of spirits (25ml), or half a standard glass of wine (175ml).

Alcohol limits are given as daily figures for regular consumption. You should not 'save up' your weekly allowance of units and drink them all at once – binge drinking is dangerous and puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning.

You should also be aware that the extent to which alcohol affects men and women can vary depending on their weight, height and many other factors.

Limits are lower for women, because women and men process and tolerate alcohol differently. Women’s bodies have a higher ratio of fat to water, so they generally cannot process alcohol as easily as men.

NHS Choices has produced an iPhone/iPod Touch app that allows you to track your alcohol units over time.

There is also a desktop version you can download to your PC or Mac.

The effects of binge drinking

A drink-by-drink guide to the effects of binge drinking on your mind and body

Poisoning happens when you take into your body a substance that damages your cells and organs and injures your health. Alcohol poisoning results from drinking a toxic amount of alcohol, usually over a short amount of time (known as binge drinking).

Rarely, alcohol poisoning can occur if you drink household products that contain alcohol (which can sometimes occur in children by accident).

What to look out for

The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • confusion
  • vomiting (being sick)
  • seizures (fits)
  • slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
  • cold, clammy, pale-bluish skin – caused by a dangerous drop in body temperature (hypothermia)

In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can cause unconsciousness, coma and death.

Read more about the symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

What to do

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, you should dial 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Never leave a person to ‘sleep it off’.

Levels of alcohol can continue to rise so a person’s symptoms could suddenly become much more severe.

Once the person is admitted to hospital they will be carefully monitored until the alcohol has left their system.

Read more about the treatment of alcohol poisoning.

How can it occur

Every time you drink alcohol, your liver has to filter out the poisonous alcohol from your blood. Alcohol is absorbed quickly into your body (much quicker than food), but the body can only process around one unit of alcohol each hour.

If you drink a lot of alcohol over a short space of time (binge drinking), such as on a night out, your body does not have time to process it all. This means that the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream, known as your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), rises. The higher your BAC, the more of an adverse effect alcohol has on the workings of your body.

For example:

  • if you had a BAC of 80 milligrams (mg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres (dl) of blood (the drink driving limit) – you would experience some loss of co-ordination and an altered perception of the environment
  • if you had a BAC of 100-200mg per dl – you would experience impaired judgment, slurred speech, loss of memory and involuntary movement of your eyes
  • if you had a BAC of 200-400mg per dl – you would experience double vision, feeling and being sick, hypothermia and severely slurred speech
  • a BAC of over 400mg per dl can result in severe breathing difficulties, coma and death

At very high levels, alcohol affects the nerves that control automatic actions, like breathing, your heartbeat, and your gag reflex (which stops you from choking).

Excessive alcohol consumption can slow or even shut down these functions, causing you to stop breathing and become unconscious.

How common is it?

In England in 2010/11, over 20,000 people were admitted to hospital due to alcohol poisoning. This accounts for more than 350 people a week.

There were 188 deaths due to alcohol poisoning in England and Wales during 2010. 




Page last reviewed: 15/06/2012

Next review due: 15/06/2014

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User503681 said on 19 November 2010

I find this very superficial. If this article is meant to focus on Alcohol poisoning then it should explicitly do so, and do so in more depth.

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VickyAdds said on 25 June 2010

Really helpful and eye opening information - I didn't realise how little you have to drink before it becomes 'a binge'!
Am definitely going to try to cut down my units now.

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Drinking and alcohol

Calculate your units, read about the health risks of drinking too much and find out where to get help and support

Real story: 'Vodka nearly killed me'

Read 15-year-old Anna's harrowing story of how she slipped into a coma after drinking a litre of vodka with her friends