Alcohol Poisoning

Too Much, Too Fast

Acute Intoxication

Poison SymbolAlcohol poisoning, like other drug overdoses, can occur after the ingestion of a large amount of any alcoholic beverage (this includes beer, wine, and distilled spirits). But inexperienced drinkers, or those more sensitive to alcohol, may become acutely intoxicated and suffer serious consequences after drinking smaller amounts. Because of differences in body chemistry, women can overdose after drinking lesser amounts than men.

Here's what happens. Alcohol (a depressant drug), once ingested, works to slow down some of the body's functions. This includes heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. When the vital centers have been depressed enough by alcohol, unconsciousness occurs. Further, the amount of alcohol that it takes to produce unconsciousness is dangerously close to the fatal dose. People who survive alcohol poisoning sometimes suffer irreversible brain damage.

Many students are surprised to learn that death can occur from acute intoxication. Most think the worst that can happen is that they will pass out or have a hangover the next day.


Knowing the signs and symptoms of acute alcohol intoxication and the proper action to take can help you avoid a tragedy.

A Dead Giveaway

Binge drinking (drinking five or more drinks in a row on a single occasion) is a common phenomenon on college campuses. As a result, you may come into contact with a person who is experiencing a life threatening acute alcohol intoxication episode.

But how can you tell if someone is about to become a victim of alcohol poisoning? And if they are, what can you do to help?

Alcohol Poisoning: A Medical Emergency

Signs and Symptoms

  • Unconsciousness or semi-consciousness
  • Slow respiration (eight or less breaths per minute)
  • Cold, clammy, pale, or bluish skin
  • Strong odor of alcohol
  • While these are obvious signs of alcohol poisoning, the list is certainly not all inclusive

Appropriate Action

  • If you encounter someone with one or more of the above symptoms, call 911 immediately
  • While waiting for the emergency transport, gently turn the intoxicated person on his or her side and maintain that position by placing a pillow in the small of the person's back. This is important to prevent aspiration (choking) should the person vomit.
  • Stay with the person until medical help arrives.

Sleeping it Off?

A more difficult situation occurs when the person appears to be "sleeping it off." It is important to understand that even though a person may be semi-conscious , alcohol already in the stomach may continue to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. The person's life may still be in danger.

If you should encounter such a situation, place the person on his or her side, help them maintain that position, and watch them closely for signs of alcohol poisoning. If any signs appear, call 911.

If you are having difficulty determining whether an individual is acutely intoxicated, contact a health professional immediately - you cannot afford to guess.