Posted on Jun 20, 2022, 3 p.m.
When we think about the dangers of any substance use disorder, overdose is probably at the top of the list. This is because overdosing on any substance can (and often does) have deadly consequences. While we might assume this only applies to illicit substances that come in pill or powder form, overdosing can also apply to alcohol consumption. Here’s what it means to overdose on alcohol and what to do if this happens.
What exactly does it mean to overdose on alcohol? Quite simply, overdosing on alcohol occurs when the bloodstream has too much alcohol. When this happens, the brain becomes overloaded with the body’s essential functions, such as those involving the heart, lung, and temperature control. Of course, we understand how important these basic bodily functions are, so the possibility of our bodies being unable to function is a scary thought. Alcohol overdose prohibits the body from being its own life support system.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), some symptoms associated with alcohol overdose include mental confusion, the inability to remain conscious, trouble breathing, irregular heart rate, lack of gag reflexes, and permanent brain damage. As the body’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) increases, so do the health dangers. Someone with a BAC below the legal intoxication limit may experience coordination problems, but going beyond this limit can bring on severe impairments and even life-threatening conditions.
While anyone who uses alcohol irresponsibly is at risk of overdosing on alcohol, it is not something limited to people who have an alcohol addiction. In fact, it’s especially risky for people who engage in binge drinking, an activity done by many people who don’t meet the criteria of alcohol addiction. Binge drinking occurs when someone’s BAC is 0.08 percent or higher within two hours of consuming alcohol. Binge drinking is almost like playing a game of Russian roulette with our organs. The likelihood of overdosing on alcohol is almost guaranteed when a person introduces this much alcohol into their system in such a short time. The result is a gamble of which bodily functions the brain cannot regulate safely.
What Poison Does to Our Bodies
Alcohol poisoning is another way people describe an alcohol overdose. When the liver cannot metabolize excessive amounts of alcohol, the substance is redirected elsewhere in the body. Since our intestines begin absorbing this excess alcohol (and eventually the bloodstream), the alcohol can take much longer to leave the body than it took to ingest it in the first place.
This means the poisoning process can begin long before we start to see the physical effects of alcohol poisoning, such as someone passing out. However, losing consciousness is not the end of alcohol poisoning. Instead, it’s a visible symptom that alcohol is still being released into the bloodstream. If the person has passed out, there’s no way for them to seek medical attention, so this responsibility falls on others nearby. However, chances are, the people who might be with us in this scenario are likely drinking as well and may not be in a place to make life-saving decisions for us.
What to Do
While the safest way to avoid this potentially dangerous situation is to avoid overdosing on alcohol in the first place, there are a few things to know that can make a huge difference in saving someone’s life. First, alcohol overdose treatment should be done in a professional setting. According to the Mayo Clinic, treating people with an alcohol overdose means having a controlled environment to keep someone safe while their body rids itself of excess alcohol. This includes fluid treatment, oxygen therapy, choking prevention, and other medications as necessary.
The faster we can get someone into the care of medical professionals, the better. Because of this, we should first call 911 to help someone with an alcohol overdose. If they are unconscious, keeping them upright is vital to decrease the possibility of choking, especially if they are vomiting while unconscious.
Overdosing on alcohol is a very serious issue. While it does not necessarily mean someone is addicted to it, overdosing on it regularly may require someone to get professional alcohol detox to begin living a healthy life. This recovery period can aid the body in healing itself from repeatedly being pushed over the limit. Alcohol overdose is technically considered a short-term health risk as long as the body can recover.
But this is the gamble people who drink too much take. If drinkers experience life-threatening symptoms that come with overdosing on alcohol, they risk permanent injury and even death. Again, pushing the body and its organs beyond their limit is a gamble.
This article was written for WHN by Kevin Morris from the Delphi Behavioral Health Group, a dedicated family of facilities committed to offering individualized treatment for all levels of addiction working to treat it at its core to provide those suffering with the tools to start a journey of long-lasting recovery.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine.
Content may be edited for style and length.
Materials provided by:
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Guide to Drug Addiction: Symptoms, Signs, and Treatment. Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/addiction/
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Alcohol Overdose – Symptoms, Effects on the Body, and Risk of Death. Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/alcohol/overdose/
NIH. (2018 Oct). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose. Retrieved https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholOverdoseFactsheet/Overdosefact.htm
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Alcohol Abuse and Addiction Treatment Guide. Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/alcohol/
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). How to Quickly Recover After an Alcohol Binge. Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/alcohol/recover-from-binge/
NIH. (2021 April). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Alcohol Poisoning: How to Tell, What to Do, and the Health Risks. Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/alcohol/alcohol-poisoning/
Mayo Clinic. (2018, Jan 19). Alcohol Poisoning. Retrieved https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20354392
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Guide to Alcohol Detox: Severity, Dangers, and Timeline. Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/alcohol/detox/
CDC. (n.d.) Alcohol Use and Your Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm