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Alcohol Poisoning

bottle of alcohol with poison labelWhat is alcohol poisoning?

Drinking can be a relaxing and social activity, but if you consume too much, you could be risking your life. Drinking too much too fast can affect your breathing, heat rate, gag reflex, and can cause coma and death.

Alcohol poisoning should be taken seriously.

What causes alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is most commonly caused by binge drinking, but can also occur through accidental ingestion of household products containing alcohol. Alcohol is absorbed through the stomach very quickly. If you are drinking on an empty stomach, alcohol will begin to affect your brain functions in less than one minute.

In the body, alcohol changes the way the body and the brain function. Alcohol slows the down normal functions including heart beat, breathing, and impairs your gag reflex (which keeps you from choking). Too much alcohol in a short time can cause your system to slow down too far, causing you to pass out, or make your organs to stop functioning.

Who gets alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can happen to anyone who drinks too much too fast. However, alcohol poisoning is more common among certain people:

  • Age: Teens, young adults, and less experienced drinkers are less likely to know safe limits and may be more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning. This age group is also more likely to binge drink—consume large amounts in short periods.
  • Sex: Men are known to binge drink more frequently, but in recent years women are beginning to binge drink just as much as men.  Women are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Women tend to have a lower percentage of body water than men, so when drinking the same amount of alcohol women will tend to have a higher alcohol concentration, which can lead to alcohol poisoning.
  • Size and weight: The smaller and thinner you are the faster your body will absorb the alcohol, making you more vulnerable to poisoning.
  • Recent food consumption: Drinking on a full stomach slow your body's absorption of the alcohol. Remember, this does not prevent alcohol poisoning.
  • Other drugs: Use of other drugs and prescriptions can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning.
  • Overall health: Conditions like heart disease or diabetes make you more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning. If you have a chronic condition talk to your doctor about how your condition may affect your reaction to alcohol.

What are the sign and symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Consumption of large amounts of alcohol
  • Cannot be woken up after drinking
  • Skin feels cold and clammy or looks pale or bluish
  • Breathing slows or become irregular (fewer than 10 breaths a minute)
  • Vomiting without waking up

What to do if you think someone has alcohol poisoning?

  • Call poison control. If the person is conscious, call 1-800-222-1222 and you will be connected to your local poison control center. They will be able to instruct you on how to treat your friend or get them to medical care.
  • If the person is unconscious, try to wake them. Calling their name or pinching their skin should lead to some reaction. If you still cannot wake them, get medical attention right away.
  • Do not leave their side. Even if they do not have alcohol poisoning, they may be still be at risk. Some people drink so much they choke on their own vomit, or face other physical risks such as accidents or sexual assault.
  • Turn them on their side. This will prevent them from choking.
  • Check skin color and temperature. If their heart beat has slowed, they will not be getting enough blood to their skin. If this is happening, their skin will be pale or bluish and cold or clammy.
  • Check their breathing. Because alcohol is a depressant, their breathing may be slowed and could stop. If their breathing is irregular (fewer then 8 breaths per minute or more then 10 seconds between breaths), this person needs medical attention right away.
  • Seek medical attention.  Don't worry about getting in trouble for drinking. Your friend's life may depend on getting to a hospital.

How is alcohol poisoning treated?

Medical care providers will provide fluids intravenously until the alcohol is removed from the body. Do not attempt to treat someone with alcohol poisoning. Get medical attention. Even if you think your friend will be mad at you, it is not worth inaction when their life is at risk.

Preventing alcohol poisoning

When drinking alcohol, there is a threshold where drinking more does not change your "buzz." Drinking more will only cause harm, such as dehydration or alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning is caused by drinking too much alcohol in a period on time. To prevent alcohol poisoning always remember to drink in moderation. Below are additional tips to prevent alcohol poisoning:

  • Only drink one serving of alcohol an hour (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor)
  • Avoid drinking on an empty stomach
  • Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (for example, try drinking one glass of water after every alcoholic drink)
  • Never mix alcohol and other drugs or medications
  • Do not drink because you are being pressured
  • Set a limit before you start drinking and stick to it
  • Every person tolerates a different amount of alcohol. Do not try to pace or compete with anyone else.

Getting help

Learn more about helping a friend who may have an alcohol use disorder

Learn whether you could have an alcohol use disorder

University of Washington Resources

Hall Health Mental Health Clinic

Provides free non-judgmental, non-confrontational counseling for students who want to explore their alcohol use through the BASICS program.

(206) 616-2495

Counseling Center

Psychologists and mental health counselors who provide developmentally-based counseling, assessment, and crisis intervention services to currently-enrolled UW students

(206) 543-1240

Hall Health Center's Primary Care Clinic

The Primary Care Clinic at Hall Health provides comprehensive acute and chronic care to all members of the community.

(206) 616-2495

Addictive Behaviors Research Center (ABRC)

Provides research, training, and evaluation in the development and dissemination of interventions to prevent and treat addictive behaviors.

(206) 685-2995

UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI)

The ADAI Library is available for student and community to use.

(206) 543-0937

UW Carelink Employee Assistance Program

Confidential counseling and other services are available for UW employees.

1-866-598-3978 (M-F) for information and appointments
1-800-833-3031 (24 hours) for crisis services

Other Resources for Seattle King County

Washington Recovery Helpline

24-hour help for substance abuse, problem gambling and mental health.

1-800-562-1240 (Washington only)
1-866-833-6546 (Teenlink--answered by teens)

Seattle-King County Crisis Clinic (24 hour crisis line)

Telephone-based crisis intervention, information and referrals for adults and youth in Seattle-King County.


Alcoholics Anonymous (24 hour)

Support for people seeking to recover from alcoholism

(206) 587-2838

Al-Anon/Alateen (24 hour)

Support for family and friends of alcoholics

(206) 625-0000

Washington State Alcohol Drug Clearinghouse

A resource for Washington State residents with both print and online resources about drugs and alcohol.

(206) 221-8325

King County Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services

Provides high quality mental health and substance abuse services to low-income individuals in need.

(206) 296-7626


Alcohol Poisoning. Mayo Clinic. Available at: Accessed on: February 18, 2013

College Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  Accessed on: February 18, 2013.


Authored by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff, January 2014