What Is an Alcohol Overdose?
An alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning, basically means that the alcohol is starting to cause important bodily functions to shut down. A severe alcohol overdose can lead to coma, permanent injury, and even death, so alcohol poisoning is considered a medical emergency.
What Causes Someone to Overdose on Alcohol?
To put it simply, an alcohol overdose is caused by drinking too much. Even in small amounts, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. At first, this may mean sedation and clumsiness, but with enough alcohol, it can lead to the depression of nerves that control things like breathing. Generally speaking, the more you drink, the more severe the alcohol poisoning.
How Much Alcohol Does It Take to Overdose?
The amount of alcohol it takes to have an alcohol overdose depends on a long list of factors. Patients who receive medical care for alcohol poisoning come with a huge range of blood-alcohol concentrations, or BAC. Plus, the amount of alcohol required to reach a certain BAC varies from person to person based on a number of factors. In the end, even the same individual may drink a certain amount one day and be fine, but drink the same amount another day and experience an alcohol overdose.
To understand the amount of alcohol it takes to have an alcohol overdose, you have to have a standardized way to measure alcoholic drinks. Experts have come to define a standard drink as a drink containing 14 grams of pure alcohol. The exact size of the drink then depends on the concentration of alcohol in it, also known as ABV or alcohol by volume. Here are a few common examples:
- 12 fl oz of beer at about 5% ABV
- 5 fl oz of wine at about 12% ABV
- 1.5 fl oz of liquor at about 40% ABV, whether straight or mixed into a drink
As a general rule, every drink of alcohol per hour raises your BAC by 0.025%. Your body then metabolizes and eliminates one drink per hour. In other words, if you start drinking at 9 PM and have three drinks by 10 PM, your BAC will be 0.075%. If you then have just one more drink between 10 and 11 PM, your BAC will remain the same. However, if you have two drinks between 10 and 11 PM, your BAC will go up to 0.1%.
Your BAC is the best predictor of alcohol overdose. The higher the BAC, the more likely you are to suffer from alcohol poisoning. As another general rule, alcohol begins to cause severe health problems at a BAC of 0.1%. By 0.3%, alcohol depresses the central nervous system so much that death is possible. Coma and death are likely at 0.4%, and at BACs over 0.5% death is probable.
Still, there are many factors that can change both how many drinks are necessary to reach a certain BAC, as well as what level of BAC puts someone in danger of alcohol poisoning.
The biggest factor that determines how much alcohol will make you have an alcohol overdose is size. Our general rule of 0.025% BAC per drink of alcohol per hour is based on a 150 lb man. A larger person is going to have more blood and a bigger liver to filter out the alcohol. As a result, it will take more to reach the same BAC. A smaller person, on the other hand, can reach a high BAC quickly and be in danger of an alcohol overdose.
Sex affects the drink-to-BAC ratio because men are usually larger than women. As a result, women usually reach a high BAC after fewer drinks than men. Men also produce more of the liver enzymes needed to filter alcohol from the body.
On an empty stomach, your body absorbs more of the alcohol you drink, and it does so more quickly. This means you can reach the BAC necessary for an alcohol overdose much faster too.
Other Drugs or Medications
Sometimes people mix alcohol with other drugs or medications. Many of these are central nervous system depressants just like alcohol. As you can imagine, if you’ve already depressed your nervous system with one drug, it will take less alcohol to depress it to the point of alcohol poisoning.
People who drink alcohol regularly develop a tolerance. Their livers begin to produce more of the enzymes needed to filter it out of the body. That means it takes more drinks to reach a high BAC. Their nervous systems also become more resistant to the effects of alcohol, so they may be able to reach a very high BAC without experiencing an alcohol overdose.
Alcohol Overdose Statistics
Every year, around 2,200 Americans die from alcohol poisoning. This can be broken down into even more alarming statistics:
- 6 people die from alcohol poisoning every day in the US
- 76% of alcohol overdose deaths are men
- 5% of alcohol overdose deaths are ages 15-24 and 76% are ages 35-64
What Happens to Your Body When You Have Alcohol Poisoning?
You’ll start noticing the effects of alcohol at around 0.03% BAC. Once you get to 0.1%, you’re at risk for an alcohol overdose and will experience severe physical symptoms. These include a loss of coordination and reflexes, which can cause slurred speech and staggering, feelings of numbness, nausea and vomiting, and vertigo known as “the spins.”
By 0.3% BAC, you probably won’t be able to recognize the effects of alcohol poisoning because you’ll be lapsing in and out of consciousness due to extreme central nervous system depression. Likewise, your heart rate and breathing will slow leading to a stupor. Due to a lack of coordination, people can choke on their own vomit and die during this stage.
At the most dangerous stage of an alcohol overdose, over 0.5% BAC for most people, you will most likely be unconscious. Your heart rate and breathing will get dangerously slow, potentially leading to coma or death from lack of oxygen.
For someone who suffers an alcohol overdose but survives, there may be long-term damage to the body. Most commonly, the low heart rate and breathing caused by alcohol poisoning prevent oxygen from reaching the brain. If this lasts long enough, there can be brain damage which can lead to permanent mental and physical disabilities. The high levels of alcohol can also damage other organs like the liver or kidneys, especially if the person drinks heavily on a regular basis.
What Should You Do If You Think Someone May Have Alcohol Poisoning?
If someone around you is suffering from the above symptoms, you must call 9-11 for medical assistance right away. While you’re waiting for help, there are several things you can do to reduce the dangers of alcohol poisoning:
- Try to keep the person awake, conscious and sitting up.
- Give the person water to sip.
- If you can’t keep the person awake, roll them on their side so they don’t choke on their own vomit.
- Cover the person with a blanket to prevent hypothermia.
Several actions many people advise for treating alcohol poisoning can actually make things worse. Do not:
- Leave the person alone
- Give the person a cold shower
- Give the person food
- Try to make them vomit
Is There Alcohol Overdose Treatment?
Medical professionals can treat an alcohol overdose if the person receives help in time. Normally, it’s enough to keep the patient breathing through a mask or breathing tube while the body filters out the alcohol naturally. In more severe cases, an alcohol overdose may be treated with hemodialysis where a machine filters the blood.
Doctors may also treat specific effects of alcohol overdose. For example, they may give the patient the vitamin thiamine to help prevent seizures. Similarly, they might treat low blood sugar with an IV sugar solution.
How Can You Prevent Alcohol Overdose?
Alcohol overdose is dangerous and potentially lethal. Luckily, it’s easy to prevent. The most important part of prevention is drinking in moderation. When people binge drink, they often lose track of how much they’ve drunk and accidentally reach dangerous levels. For this reason, communication amongst friends is important. Look out for each other.
If you feel like your drinking has gotten out of control and you can’t moderate it despite the high risks of alcohol overdose, seeking help from a professional clinic like Bedrock Recovery Center may be the best option for prevention. It only takes one bad experience to be fatal, so it’s essential to get your drinking under control as soon as possible. Call Bedrock Recovery Center today to learn more about your treatment options.