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Alcohol Overdose

What Is an Alcohol Overdose?

Alcohol is a drug that affects your central nervous system. It’s considered a depressant because it slows down your speech, movement, and reaction time. Most people consume alcohol because it has a relaxing effect. Drinking can be a healthy social experience, but consuming large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can lead to serious health complications.

An alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, is one health problem that can result from too much alcohol consumption. An alcohol overdose can happen when you drink too much alcohol at one time.

Call 911 if someone you know experiences an alcohol overdose. This is a serious condition that can be life-threatening.

What Causes an Alcohol Overdose?

Alcohol affects all of your organs. An alcohol overdose happens when you drink more alcohol than your body can safely process. First, the stomach and small intestine quickly absorb alcohol so that it enters the bloodstream at a rapid rate. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the quantity that enters your bloodstream.

The liver also metabolizes alcohol, but it can only break down so much at one time. Therefore, what the liver can’t break down is redirected throughout the rest of the body.

Usually, the body can safely process 1 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 because your liver can’t break it down.

What Are the Risk Factors for an Alcohol Overdose?

The most common risk factors that can raise your chances of having an alcohol overdose are:

  • age
  • gender
  • body size
  • tolerance
  • binge drinking
  • drug use
  • certain health conditions


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.

Body Size

Your height and weight determine how fast your body absorbs alcohol. People with smaller bodies may experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than someone with a larger body. The smaller-bodied person may experience overdose after drinking the same amount that a larger-bodied person can consume safely.


Having a high tolerance for alcohol or drinking quickly by playing drinking games can put you at increased risk for alcohol overdose.

Binge Drinking

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 may be at greater risk for having an alcohol overdose.

Drug Use

If you combine alcohol and drugs, you may not feel the effects of the alcohol. This may cause you to drink more, increasing your risk for alcohol overdose.

What Are the Symptoms of an Alcohol Overdose?

Symptoms of an alcohol overdose can include:

  • changes in mental state, including confusion
  • vomiting
  • pale or blue skin
  • a decrease in body temperature (hypothermia)
  • passing out (unconsciousness)

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. These include:

  • slowing or stopping breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex, all of which are controlled by your nervous system
  • cardiac arrest following a decrease in your body temperature (hypothermia)
  • seizures as a result of low blood sugar levels

You don’t need to have all of the symptoms listed above to have an alcohol overdose. If someone’s breathing has slowed to less than eight breaths per minute or if the person cannot be woken up, you should call 911.

If you suspect an alcohol overdose and the person is unconscious, do not leave the person alone. Be sure to place the person on their side in case they vomit.

An alcohol overdose can suppress a person’s gag reflex. Someone could choke, and possibly die, if they vomit while unconscious and lying on their backs. If 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 such as 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 can be an indicator of alcohol poisoning.

How Is Alcohol Overdose Treated?

An alcohol overdose is typically treated in the emergency room. The emergency room physician 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, including:

  • 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 outlook will depend on how severe your overdose is and how quickly you seek treatment.

Prompt treatment of alcohol overdose can prevent 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?

You can prevent an alcohol overdose by limiting your alcohol intake. You might consider sticking with one drink, or abstaining from alcohol altogether. Seek help if you have a drinking problem.

Take action to protect your loved ones from alcohol overdose. Talk to your children about the dangers of alcohol and possible overdose. According to the Mayo Clinic, open communication has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of teen drinking and subsequent alcohol poisoning.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Darla Burke and Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: Nov 30, 2015: Timothy J. Legg PhD, CARN-AP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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