Introduction 

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

This is often known as binge drinking.

Poisoning is exposure to a substance that can damage your health and put your life in danger.

Alcohol poisoning can also occur if a person drinks household products that contain alcohol (children sometimes drink these by accident).

What to look for

The signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • 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.

What to do

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, dial 999 immediately to request 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.

After being admitted to hospital, the person will be carefully monitored until the alcohol has left their system.

Read more about the treatment of alcohol poisoning.

How it can occur

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

The higher your BAC, the more of an adverse effect alcohol has on the functions 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
  • a BAC of 100-200mg per dl, you would experience impaired judgment, slurred speech, loss of memory and involuntary movement of your eyes
  • a BAC of 200-400mg per dl, you would have double vision, feel sick, have hypothermia and severely slurred speech
  • a BAC of over 400mg per dl, you would have severe breathing difficulties and go into a coma followed by death

At very high levels, alcohol affects the nerves that control automatic functions, such as breathing, 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 alcohol poisoning?

In 2012-13, just over 297,000 people were admitted to hospital for conditions or injuries related solely to alcohol consumption.

Of these, just under 34,000 admissions were the result of alcohol poisoning, with around 50,500 admissions due to alcohol-related liver disease.

Mental and behavioural disorders caused by alcohol consumption were the most common alcohol-related diagnosis in 2012-13, resulting in 198,600 hospital admissions.




Alcohol limits

The recommended daily alcohol limits are:

  • men – no more than 3-4 units a day
  • women – no more than 2-3 units a day 

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%)
  • half a standard glass of red, white or rose wine (175ml, ABV 12%)

Read more about alcohol units.

Don't 'save up' your weekly allowance of alcohol units and drink them all at once. You should also avoid binge drinking (drinking more than three times the daily limit) becaue it's dangerous and puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning.

NHS Choices has produced an iPhone drinks tracker that allows you to track your alcohol consumption over time. You can also download an alcohol tracker to use on your PC or Mac.

Page last reviewed: 23/06/2014

Next review due: 23/06/2016