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Alcohol Overdose/Poisoning

As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol has the same physiological effect on our central nervous system as other depressants such as opioids, benzodiazepines, and other narcotics.

What Happens When You Overdose on Alcohol (Alcohol Poisoning)?

With high-risk drinking, the concentration of alcohol in the blood becomes high enough to depress the areas of the brain responsible for consciousness and respiration. As a result, the drinker can lapse into a coma, stop breathing, and die.

Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as the gag reflex, which prevents choking. Since alcohol irritates the stomach, people who drink an excessive amount often vomit. Without a properly functioning gag reflex, there is a risk of choking on vomit, which could kill an unconscious person.

A person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while passed out as alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream. Assuming the person will "sleep it off" is dangerous. Also, forcing the person to vomit does not help. The alcohol has already passed into their small intestine and they cannot vomit those contents. Other common myths about sobering up include drinking black coffee, taking a cold bath or shower, or walking it off. It's important to know that none of these things will help a person sober up, and they have the potential to cause more harm than good. The only thing that can help a person sober up is time and hydration.

If a person is so intoxicated to the point that they are non-responsive, not gasping for air, hyperventilating or not breathing at all, or showing any of the other signs of alcohol poisoning, get help immediately. Call 911.

What are the signs of life-threatening alcohol poisoning?

  • Passing out and can’t be roused
  • Vomiting more than once
  • Fewer than eight breaths per minute or breaths spaced by 10 or more seconds
  • Blue lips
  • Cold and clammy extremities

Important note:

Because alcohol is a drug in the depressant category, an alcohol overdose can look very similar to an opioid overdose. In EITHER case it is vitally important that the first thing you do is call 911 without hesitation. If it IS alcohol poisoning, the person will need to go to the hospital for fluids to recalibrate their blood alcohol content. If it is an opioid overdose, the person will need medical personnel to administer naloxone AND immediately get to the hospital before the naloxone wears off. 

Why you should not hesitate to call 911:

If paramedics are called, they will come and assess the person, and using their medical expertise determine if the person needs to be taken to the hospital. They will not transport a person to the hospital unless they NEED to go to the hospital. Medical assessment by paramedics has no financial cost associated with it. Additionally there are good samartin laws and other legal protections when one calls 911 in good faith to help with a drug or alcohol emergency. Do not hesitate, just call.