Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks a toxic amount of alcohol, usually over a short period of time (binge drinking).

Being poisoned by alcohol can damage your health or even put your life in danger.

It's important to avoid misusing alcohol and to be aware of how much you're drinking and the effect this could have on your body.

This topic covers:

Signs and symptoms

When to seek medical help

Treatment in hospital

Dangers of alcohol poisoning

How alcohol poisoning occurs

The effects of alcohol

Recommended alcohol limits

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning

The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • confusion
  • severely slurred speech
  • loss of co-ordination
  • vomiting
  • irregular or slow breathing
  • hypothermia (pale or blue-tinged skin caused by low body temperature)
  • stupor (being conscious but unresponsive)
  • passing out and being unconscious

In the most severe cases, alcohol poisoning can lead to coma, brain damage and death.

When to seek medical help

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, dial 999 immediately to request an ambulance. While you're waiting:

  • try to keep them sitting up and awake
  • give them water if they can drink it
  • if they've passed out, lie them on their side in the recovery position and check they're breathing properly
  • keep them warm
  • stay with them and monitor their symptoms

Never leave a person alone to 'sleep it off'. The level of alcohol in a person's blood can continue to rise for up to 30-40 minutes after their last drink. This can cause their symptoms to suddenly become much more severe.

You also shouldn't give them coffee or any more alcohol, put them under a cold shower or walk them around. These won't help someone 'sober up' and may even be dangerous.

How alcohol poisoning is treated in hospital

In hospital, the person will be carefully monitored until the alcohol has left their system. If treatment is required, this may include:

  • inserting a tube into their mouth and windpipe (intubation) – to open the airway, remove any blockages and help with breathing
  • fitting an intravenous drip, which goes directly into a vein – to top up their water, blood sugar and vitamin levels
  • fitting a catheter (thin tube) to their bladder – to drain urine straight into a bag so they don't wet themselves

Dangers of alcohol poisoning

If a person is poisoned by alcohol they could:

  • choke on their vomit
  • stop breathing
  • have a heart attack
  • inhale vomit, leading to fatal lung damage
  • become severely dehydrated, which can cause permanent brain damage in extreme cases
  • develop more severe hypothermia
  • have seizures (fits) as a result of lowered blood sugar levels

Repeated vomiting and retching can lead to the vomiting of blood as a result of a torn blood vessel (Mallory-Weiss tear) at the junction of the stomach and gullet.

Other related risks

Drinking too much alcohol can affect a person's judgement and put them in situations where their health and safety are at risk. For example, they may:

  • have an accident or get injured
  • become involved in violent or antisocial behaviour
  • have unsafe sex, which can lead to an unplanned pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • lose personal possessions

How alcohol poisoning occurs

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

If you drink a lot of alcohol over a short space of time, such as on a night out, your body won't have time to process it all. Alcohol poisoning can also occur if a person drinks household products that contain alcohol – children sometimes drink these by accident.

The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream – known as your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) – will rise.

The effects of alcohol

Around 1-2 units

  • your heart rate will speed up and your blood vessels will expand
  • you get the warm, sociable feeling associated with moderate drinking

Around 4-6 units

  • your decision making and judgement will start to be affected, making you lose your inhibitions and become more reckless
  • the cells in your nervous system will start to be affected, making you feel lightheaded
  • your co-ordination will be affected and your reaction time may be slower

Around 8-9 units

  • your reaction times will be much slower
  • your speech will be slurred
  • your vision will begin to lose focus
  • your liver won't be able to remove all of the alcohol overnight, so it's likely you'll wake up with a hangover

At this stage you should seriously consider not drinking any more alcohol.

If you do:

Around 10-12 units

  • your co-ordination will be seriously impaired, placing you at high risk of having an accident
  • you may stagger around or feel unstable on your feet
  • you'll feel drowsy or dizzy
  • the amount of alcohol in your body will begin to reach toxic (poisonous) levels
  • you may need to go to the toilet more often as your body attempts to quickly pass the alcohol out of your body in your urine
  • you'll be dehydrated in the morning, and probably have a severe headache
  • the excess alcohol in your system may upset your digestive system, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or indigestion

More than 12 units

  • you're at high risk of developing alcohol poisoning, particularly if you're drinking lots of units in a short space of time
  • the alcohol can begin to interfere with the automatic functions of your body, such as your breathing, heart rate and gag reflex
  • you're at risk of losing consciousness

Recommended alcohol limits

If you drink most weeks, to reduce your risk of harming your health:

  • men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week
  • spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week

One unit of alcohol is equivalent to:

  • half a pint of lower-strength lager, beer or cider (ABV 3.6%)
  • a single small shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)

Read more about alcohol units.

You should also avoid binge drinking as it's dangerous and puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning.

Read more about drinking and alcohol including tips on cutting down on your drinking.

Page last reviewed: 05/04/2016

Next review due: 05/04/2019