Alcohol overdose is caused by drinking too much alcohol too quickly. This can overwhelm the body’s ability to process the alcohol and may cause areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate and temperature control—to shut down. Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage and even death.
Common causes of alcohol overdose are binge drinking and high-intensity drinking. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent or higher. This typically occurs after four drinks for women or five drinks for men in about two hours. High-intensity drinking is defined as consuming at least twice these amounts. Research shows that teens and young adults often engage in binge drinking and high-intensity drinking making them vulnerable to alcohol overdose. However, anyone who consumes too much alcohol too quickly can be at risk of alcohol overdose.
Alcohol use and taking opioids or sedative-hypnotics, such as sleep and anti-anxiety medications, can increase your risk of an overdose. Examples of these medications include sleep aids and benzodiazepines. Even drinking alcohol while taking over-the-counter antihistamines can be dangerous. Using alcohol with opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone and morphine or illicit opioids such as heroin is also a very dangerous combination. Like alcohol, these drugs suppress areas in the brain that control vital functions such as breathing. Ingesting alcohol and other drugs together intensifies their individual effects and could produce an overdose with even moderate amounts of alcohol.
Know the Danger Signs
The signs of alcohol overdose include:
- mental confusion
- difficulty remaining conscious
- trouble breathing
- slow heart rate
- clammy skin
- dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking)
- extremely low body temperature
If someone has been drinking and is experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Do not wait for all the symptoms to be present. It is critical that a person suffering from alcohol overdose receive medical attention right away. Cold showers, hot coffee and walking do not reverse the effects of alcohol overdose and could actually make things worse.
While waiting for medical help to arrive:
- Prepare to provide information to responders—the type and amount of alcohol the person drank; other drugs he or she may have taken; and any health information that you know about the person.
- Do not leave them alone. Keep the person on the ground in a sitting or partially upright position to prevent the risk of falling or choking.
- Help a person who is vomiting. Have him or her lean forward to prevent choking. If a person is unconscious or lying down, roll him or her onto one side with an ear toward the ground to prevent choking.
To avoid the risk of an alcohol overdose, limit your alcohol consumption if you choose to drink, or don’t drink at all.
To learn more about alcohol overdose, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) fact sheet Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose. You can also link to the fact sheet on your website and print it to give out at community events.
New and Updated Publications Available from NIAAA
NIAAA, the lead Federal agency for research on alcohol and health, has many resources available for coalition members and the public covering a variety of alcohol-related topics. You can view and download NIAAA educational materials on their website.