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Alcohol Overdose Symptoms and Treatment

Alcohol misuse is prevalent across the country and consequences of alcohol abuse can be felt on an individual and societal level. Alcohol misuse and excessive alcohol use include both binge drinking and heavy drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that excessive alcohol use is responsible for over 140,000 deaths annually in the U.S.1

This page will go over the consequences that can occur as a result of alcohol misuse, such as alcohol overdose and alcohol poisoning, risk factors for alcohol misuse and overdose, as well as how to prevent and treat an overdose.

What Is Alcohol Overdose/Alcohol Poisoning?

The terms alcohol poisoning and alcohol overdose are often used interchangeably. Both alcohol poisoning and alcohol overdose refer to a state where an excessive amount of alcohol enters the bloodstream and impairs the brain’s ability to support essential life functions such as body temperature control, heart rate, and breathing.2 When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed into the body and bloodstream through the small intestine and stomach.3

Your BAC is your blood alcohol concentration. Your risk of harm increases when your BAC increases, as does the effects of alcohol and the risk of overdose.2 There are serious risks associated with alcohol overdose, some of which are permanent, and can include brain damage and death.2

What Are the Risk Factors for Alcohol Overdose?

Certain risk factors can make you more susceptible to an alcohol overdose, and they include:2

  • Your age.
  • Gender.
  • The rate at which you consume alcohol.
  • The amount of food you have eaten.
  • Your tolerance level.
  • Combining alcohol and opioids (morphine and oxycodone).
  • Drinking alcohol while taking antihistamines.
  • Using sleep medication and/or anti-anxiety medication (benzodiazepines) and drinking alcohol at the same time.
  • Binge drinking or high-intensity drinking.

Keep in mind that anyone who drinks an excessive amount of alcohol too quickly is at risk for alcohol overdose.2 Binge drinking is a form of alcohol misuse that can lead to alcohol overdose.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming 4 or more drinks in 2 hours for a woman and 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for a man.2 High-intensity drinking is another form of alcohol misuse which can contribute to alcohol overdose. It is defined as drinking 2 or more times the binge-drinking thresholds for women and men.2

Underage drinking is highly prevalent in the U.S., and teenagers are at a higher risk of alcohol overdose due to the ways they sometimes consume alcohol. Research indicates that underage drinkers tend to engage in high-intensity and binge-drinking behaviors, which disrupts the body’s ability to break down and remove alcohol from the bloodstream, which can lead to alcohol overdose.2

Factors that can increase your risk of binge drinking include:4

  • Being female­–In 2019, nearly 1 in 4 women engaged in binge drinking in a one-month period.
  • Being a young adult­–Research indicates that, in 2019, 27.7% of college-age adults not enrolled in college and 33.3% of college students reported binge drinking within a one-month period.
  • Being 65 years of age and older­–In 2019, more than 10% of adults 65 and over report binge drinking in a one-month timeframe.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Overdose

There are signs to look out for if you believe you or someone you love may be experiencing alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose. Symptoms can range in intensity, and they can be life-threatening. Symptoms are based on BAC; the higher the BAC, the more severe the symptoms.2

Common signs of alcohol overdose include:2

  • Inability to wake up or difficulty staying conscious.
  • Slow breathing (less than 8 breaths in 1 minute).
  • Mental confusion.
  • Irregular breathing.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Reduced heart rate.
  • Seizures.
  • Vomiting.
  • Slowed and dulled reflexes such as no gag reflex.
  • Very low body temperature.
  • Pale skin or blueish skin.

What to Do in Case of an Alcohol Overdose

Due to the risks associated with alcohol overdose, it is imperative that you seek medical attention and emergency services immediately.2 Call 911 if you think you or someone you love is showing signs of alcohol poisoning. Time is of the essence. You don’t want to wait for a person to display all or only certain signs before making the call for help.2

Keep in mind that many of the symptoms listed above can be life-threatening or lead to life-threatening outcomes. For example, a seizure can be extremely dangerous, and a lack of gag reflex combined with vomiting can contribute to choking and potentially death due to a lack of oxygen to the brain.2

It can feel overwhelming and scary to be in a situation where someone you know or love may be experiencing an alcohol overdose. However, there are steps you can take to help, and possibly save the person’s life.

Tips to handle an alcohol overdose include:2

  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Don’t wait for all the symptoms to be present to call 911; call 911 immediately.
  • Don’t try to treat the symptoms with coffee, a cold shower, or movement, as that can exacerbate symptoms and make the situation worse.
  • Be specific with first responders and identify exact details of the person’s alcohol consumption, including the amount, other substances taken, and any underlying health conditions you know of.
  • Keep the person on the ground, sitting in an upright or partially upright position.
  • If the person is lying down or unconscious, roll them to one side with one ear on the ground to prevent choking.
  • If the person is throwing up, help them to lean forward to avoid choking.

Preventing Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol overdose is preventable on an individual and societal level. The Community Preventive Services Task Force is a nonfederal and independent group of health and prevention experts who volunteer to develop and recommend evidence-based community strategies to reduce alcohol misuse.1 This task force has developed a list of strategies to help deter alcohol consumption, such as the way alcohol is purchased, levels of alcohol concentration allowed in beverages, and restricting sales of alcohol.

More specifically, the Community Preventive Services Task Force has worked to:1

  • Increase alcohol taxes.
  • Regulate the density of alcohol concentration in beverages.
  • Create laws to hold alcohol retailers responsible for harm and injury caused by the illegal sale of alcohol to minors and to intoxicated people.
  • Allow communities such as states and cities to limit days and times when alcohol can be sold or served.
  • Develop more stringent laws that prohibit alcohol sales to minors; that can include increased penalties and fines for retailers that do.
  • Utilize technology to screen people in primary care settings for problematic drinking and provide counseling and other services.

There are strategies you can implement on an individual level to reduce your risk of alcohol overdose. These strategies include:1, 5

  • Know your drinking limits.
  • Don’t drink in excess or encourage others to do the same.
  • Don’t serve or offer alcohol to people who are already intoxicated, have drank too much, or are under 21 years old.
  • Should you choose to drink alcohol, limit your alcohol consumption and drink in moderation, which means 2 or fewer drinks a day for men and 1 or fewer drinks a day for women.
  • Discuss your drinking habits with your healthcare provider and follow your provider’s treatment recommendations.
  • Do not mix alcohol with other drugs or substances, also known as polysubstance use.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (sometimes referred to as alcohol addiction) is characterized by a problematic pattern of alcohol use that leads to significant impairment in functioning.6

There are 11 criteria used to diagnose AUD; some of the 11 symptoms include:6

  • You drink alcohol in larger quantities or for a longer period than you originally intended.
  • You continue to drink alcohol even though it has contributed to physical, social, or psychological problems.
  • You develop a tolerance to alcohol, which is a need for increased amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effects.
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you are not drinking.
  • You crave alcohol when you’re not drinking.

AUD is diagnosed on a severity scale that includes mild, moderate, and severe; 2–3 symptoms is mild AUD, 4­–5 indicates moderate, and 6 or more reflects severe AUD.6 It is important to note that binge drinking is not only a risk factor for alcohol overdose, but it can also increase your risk of developing an AUD.7

Finding Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

If you feel you may have a drinking problem, are struggling with controlling the amount of alcohol you consume, or think you may have AUD, substance abuse treatment can help you. While there is no cure for alcohol addiction, cravings, symptoms, and triggers can be controlled through healthy coping tools.8 Treatment for alcohol can not only help you stop your problematic alcohol use, but it also helps you learn the necessary skills to live a productive and happy life in without the use of alcohol.8

Research consistently demonstrates that people, regardless of the severity of alcohol use disorder, can benefit from some form of substance use treatment.9 Studies on the effectiveness of substance use treatment indicate that:9

  • One-third of people who attend treatment have no symptoms of AUD 1 year after treatment completion.
  • Additionally, many others who attend treatment significantly decrease their alcohol consumption and report a reduction in alcohol-related issues.

Substance misuse treatment can also:8

  • Effectively manage and minimize the physical and emotional symptoms that occur during alcohol withdrawal and detox.
  • Improve family functioning.
  • Increase social support and improve social functioning.
  • Provide complementary services such as employment and housing assistance.
  • Help you identify, minimize, and effectively cope with triggers to alcohol use.
  • Develop skills necessary to cope with emotions and triggers.

Alcohol addiction treatment is multi-faceted, and treatment offers a variety of different services and interventions that are specific to your unique needs and recovery goals. Common services included in substance use treatment include:

Effective treatment includes a combination of evidence-based therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management (CM). If you are thinking about getting help for your alcohol addiction, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. Verify your insurance online or call and speak with an admissions navigator today.

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