You’ll often hear the term “alcohol poisoning” thrown around during or after your night out.
By definition, alcohol poisoning is when your blood alcohol levels reach a level where it can cause significant damage and in some cases a risk to life.
In this article we’re going to take an in-depth look into the causes, signs and treatment of alcohol poisoning.
What is alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning Is usually associated with binge drinking which is defined as having more than 5 alcohol drinks in one sitting (this number varies a lot depending on your height, sex, weight and metabolism).
Your liver is in charge of metabolizing alcohol in order to clear it from your blood.
It can only process one drink per hour so if you’re consuming more than this, the blood alcohol levels will increase – causing you to feel drunk.
This is usually the desired effect of course.
After a few drinks, the blood alcohol levels continue to rise causing a backlog of alcohol in your system.
So when does it become dangerous?
In cases where you’re drinking significantly more than one drink per hour, the risks of having alcohol poisoning goes up.(1)
Alcohol is absorbed rapidly from your stomach and your blood levels can continue to rise up to 40 minutes after your last drink.
In summary, alcohol poisoning happens when your blood alcohol concentration reaches a level which causes serious disruption of your normal body processes.
How does alcohol affect the body?
To understand how alcohol causes poisoning, we need to cover how alcohol affects your body and brain in the first place.
Alcohols effect on the brain:
Alcohol is a water-soluble molecule which means it can freely pass from your bloodstream to the brain without being filtered.
Alcohol is a nervous system suppressant. This means that it slows down the normal functions of the brain including decision making and reaction times.
The effects of alcohol on the brain goes through stages depending on the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream.
Stage 1: Happy feeling, impaired co-ordination
Stage 2 : Poor co-ordination affecting walking
Stage 3 : Slurred speech, stumbling / falling, nausea / vomiting
Stage 4: Anaesthesia / “blackout”
Stage 5: Respiratory failure / coma
When alcohol levels rise past stage 4, the risk of alcohol poisoning becomes very real.
Alcohols effect on kidneys:
Alcohol is a diuretic which means it makes you urinate more fluid than you are drinking.
To give an example, for every 500ml of beer, you’ll lose an extra 280ml of fluid.
If you add this up over a course of a night out having several drinks can cause severe dehydration.
Alcohols effect on glucose:
Sugar levels often drop in alcohol poisoning. This is because alcohol can block the release of glucose from your liver into your blood stream.
It can also alter the amount of insulin released from your pancreases.
Overall, this can cause your sugar levels to drop. Low sugar levels by itself can cause coma and seizure.
Alcohol poisoning is the term used to describe the combined disruptive effect of alcohol on various essential body processes.
Alcohols effect on electrolytes:
Along with the loss of fluid from your kidneys, alcohol can also deplete many of your essential electrolytes including magnesium, potassium, calcium and phosphate.
Sudden and severe drops in these electrolytes can have significant consequences including heart arrhythmias and seizure.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, we can we go over the signs of alcohol poisoning and what exactly to look out for.
What are the signs of alcohol poisoning?
There are a few signs to look out for if you’re worried someone around you has alcohol poisoning.
It’s also important to note that someone who’s just very drunk can quickly deteriorate because it’s likely that alcohol is still being absorbed from their stomach from their last drink.
- severely slurred speech
- loss of co-ordination and balance – inability to stand
- irregular or slow breathing
- pale or blue-tinged skin caused by low body temperature – Hypothermia
- being conscious but unresponsive (stupor)
- passing out and losing consciousness
What to do if you think someone has alcohol poisoning?
First things first, no more alcohol and call for help.
If you think one of your friends is getting into the later stages of alcohol intoxication, you should stop them having any more and give them water.
If it’s past this stage and they’ve got any of the signs mentioned above, its time to call the emergency services for help.
In the time it takes for them to arrive, make sure they’re sitting upright with their back against the wall.
Don’t try and give them caffeine or helping them have a cold shower to “sober them up” because it doesn’t work and can be more dangerous.
Also, make sure you stay with them and never leave so that they can “sober up”.
If in doubt, call for help.
If they’re vomiting, try and put them in the recovery position by leaving them on their side so that the vomit doesn’t slip back into their airway.
How much alcohol causes poisoning?
It depends on several different factors and the exact amount varies between individuals.
Some of the factors including your height, weight, sex and rate of metabolism.
If you’re over 6ft 5in and stacked like a football player, then you’ll be able to handle a lot more alcohol before you reach poisoning levels.
On the other hand, if you’re the opposite body size it’ll take much less alcohol.
In essence, the amount of alcohol which causes poisoning is completely different depending on who you are.
How is alcohol poisoning treated?
If you’re thinking that alcohol poisoning is treated by having your “stomach pumped” – think again.
This used to be done many years ago but you won’t see it done in hospitals anymore.
The reason is, by the time you’ve reached the hospital, the alcohol is already in your blood stream and “pumping” the alcohol out of your stomach will make no difference.
Nowadays, alcohol poisoning is treated with simple IV fluids to rehydrate and replace any lost electrolytes.
In most cases, time is the best healer as your liver continues to break down the alcohol in your blood stream until it reaches zero.
In very severe cases, such as when alcohol poisoning leads to breathing issues and seizures, alcohol is removed from the blood stream via hemodialysis.
Can you have alcohol poisoning the day after drinking?
If you’ve had a big night are feeling awful in the morning, the chances are you’ve got a really bad hangover.
By definition, alcohol poisoning can only occur when your blood alcohol levels are so high that it causes the above mentioned signs.
The day after drinking, most of the alcohol in your blood stream will have gone.
Remember we mentioned that your liver can process about 1 unit of alcohol per hour. Lets say you have five large glasses of wine. Thats just over 10 units.
Therefore it’ll take about 10 hours until your blood alcohol levels drop to zero. (This is a very rough estimate and shouldn’t be used as a guide to know when you’ve cleared alcohol from your system.)
So you can’t have alcohol poisoning the day after drinking. But you can definitely have a terrible hangover.
Symptoms of a bad hangover include:
Nausea and vomiting
Alcohol poisoning FAQs
Do I have a bad hangover or alcohol poisoning?
If you’re reading this after a big night of drinking and you’re feeling the full force of the after-effects of all the shots you did last night, chances are you’ve got a bad hangover and not alcohol poisoning.
What are the signs of alcohol poisoning symptoms the next day?
Alcohol poisoning only occurs when blood alcohol levels are very high. You won’t have any signs of alcohol poisoning the next day.
The only things you’ll have are the signs and symptoms of a hangover.
If you’re reading this article the morning after a big night out feeling rough, chances are you’re experiencing a bad hangover and not alcohol poisoning.
What are the effects of alcohol poisoning days later?
If you’ve had alcohol poisoning, you’ll probably feel the effects of the hangover for several days after your night out.
Common symptoms include lack of energy, inability to focus and feeling body aches.
Your body has an amazing ability to recover and repair itself after a big night out so you should be back to your normal self after a few days.
Did I have alcohol poisoning last night?
If you’ve been told by your friends that you were falling over, being unresponsive or actually passed out then the chances are you had some of the features of alcohol poisoning.
Anything else to consider?
The only way to get poisoning from alcohol is from binge drinking over your limits. The only way to prevent it from happening is drinking at a slow and steady pace to allow your liver to clear alcohol from your blood stream.
If you’re starting to feel unsteady or losing balance, you should stop drinking alcohol and switch to water to give your body a chance to recover.
You can slow down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed from your stomach by making sure you have a meal before going out.
Drinking on an empty stomach causes a faster increase in blood alcohol concentrations.
Signs of alcohol poisoning – Final words
Alcohol poisoning can be very dangerous and can lead to significant harm.
The safest way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to limit how much your’re drinking.
If you’re concerned someone around you has alcohol poisoning, call for help.