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Alcohol Poisoning or Overdose

Alcohol poisoning happens when there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain that control basic life support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down.  Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion; difficulty remaining conscious; vomiting; seizures; slow breathing or gaps in breathing; slow heart rate; clammy skin; dulled responses, such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking); and extremely low body temperature.

It is dangerous to assume that an unconscious person will be fine by sleeping it off.  Alcohol acts as a depressant, hindering signals in the brain that control automatic responses such as the gag reflex.  Alcohol also can irritate the stomach, causing vomiting.  With no gag reflex, a person who drinks to the point of passing out is in danger of choking.  This, in turn, could lead to death when someone chokes on, or breathes in, their own vomit Even if the drinker survives, an alcohol overdose can lead to long-lasting brain damage.

If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, seek medical help immediately.

Alcohol poisoning is an emergency.  If you're with someone who has been drinking an excessive amount of alcohol and you see any of the signs or symptoms listed above, here's what to do:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.  Never assume that a person will sleep off alcohol poisoning.
  • Be prepared to provide information.  If you know, be sure to tell hospital or emergency personnel the kind and amount of alcohol the person drank, and when.
  • Don't leave an unconscious person alone.  Because alcohol poisoning affects the way your gag reflex works, someone with alcohol poisoning may choke on his or her own vomit and not be able to breathe.  While waiting for help, don't try to make the person vomit because he or she could choke.
  • Help a person who is vomiting. Try to keep him or her sitting up.  If the person must lie down, make sure to turn his or her head to the side — this helps prevent choking.  Try to keep the person awake to prevent loss of consciousness.
  • Don't be afraid to get help.  It can be difficult to decide if you think someone is drunk enough to warrant medical intervention, but it's best to err on the side of caution.  You may worry about the consequences for yourself or your friend or loved one, particularly if you're underage.  But the consequences of not getting the right help in time can be far more serious.