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Page medically reviewed by Dee Johnson (Mbacp, MNCS), Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

Alcohol poisoning is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It happens when someone drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, leading to a toxic build-up in the body, and a number of severe symptoms.

Here, we explore alcohol poisoning in detail, shedding light on this often-misunderstood aspect of excessive alcohol consumption. We’ll discuss the signs of alcohol poisoning, its effects, how long it lasts and provide information on what to do if you think someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning.

How much do you have to drink to get alcohol poisoning?

The threshold for alcohol poisoning can vary from person to person, depending on a whole range of factors, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Overall health
  • Individual tolerance
  • Whether the person has eaten anything
  • Whether the person has other substances in their system, such as drugs or medication

Alcohol poisoning isn’t just determined by the amount of alcohol consumed, but also by the rate at which it’s consumed. Binge drinking, which is defined as drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time, significantly increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.

For most people, a single episode of excessive drinking can potentially lead to alcohol poisoning. This might include consuming several pints of beer, glasses of wine or multiple shots of spirits in a matter of hours.

It’s important to remember that the effects of drinking alcohol vary widely, and what might be  more tolerable for one person could be dangerous for another. It’s always wise to drink responsibly, pace yourself and be aware of and honest about your limits, in order to reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning and its associated dangers.

Alcohol poisoning symptoms

Alcohol poisoning symptoms don’t just appear during or immediately after the drinking session; they can last for days or even weeks afterwards.

In the immediate aftermath of excessive drinking, you might experience the following signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Confusion
  • Slurring words or not being able to speak
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Losing control of the bladder and/or bowels
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • A drop in body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Impaired gag reflex, which can increase the risk of choking
  • Vomiting - increasing risk of dehydration

In serious cases, it’s possible for the person to fall into a coma, which could lead to their death.

Alcohol poisoning can also lead to severe symptoms in the days following the binge, including:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Intense headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and anger issues

These delayed symptoms emphasise the fact that alcohol poisoning isn’t just a short-term consequence of heavy drinking. It can also have a long-lasting impact on your physical and mental health.

How long does alcohol poisoning last?

How long alcohol poisoning lasts usually depends on the severity of each individual case. In the short term, alcohol poisoning can last for several hours. During this time, you might experience some of the symptoms listed above, including confusion, vomiting and seizures.

Seeking immediate medical help is crucial, as untreated alcohol poisoning can be fatal. Medical professionals can provide the treatment needed to help your body metabolise the alcohol and alleviate these short term effects as quickly as possible. The sooner you get medical help, the better your chances of a quick recovery.

Long term effects of alcohol poisoning

The long term effects of alcohol poisoning can be serious and shouldn’t be underestimated. While the immediate, short term effects of alcohol poisoning can often be treated with medical intervention, the episode itself should be viewed as a sign that you might have deeper issues with alcohol abuse.

Repeated episodes of alcohol poisoning can lead to lasting consequences, both physically and mentally. Over time, chronic heavy drinking can:

  • Damage vital organs like the liver, heart and brain
  • Damage the nervous system
  • Contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and cognitive impairments
  • Increase the risk of alcohol addiction and other addictions

Understanding these long term effects of alcohol poisoning is important so you can take steps to address your alcohol-related issues and prevent further harm.

What to do if you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning

If you think that someone you’re with may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, it’s crucial to take immediate action. The first step is to call the emergency services by dialling 999.

While you’re waiting for help to arrive, there are some ‘dos and don’ts’ when it comes to helping the affected person.

Do:

  • Try to keep them awake and sitting up, if possible
  • If they’re conscious and alert, encourage them to drink water to combat dehydration – make sure they sip regularly, and don’t gulp the water
  • If the person is unconscious or can’t sit up, lie them on their side and use something to support their head – this is known as the recovery position
  • Try to keep the person warm with a jacket or blanket

Don’t:

  • Leave them alone, as the symptoms of alcohol poisoning can get worse very quickly
  • Try to make them sick, as they might choke on it
  • Give them caffeinated drinks like coffee, as this could make them even more dehydrated
  • Try to ‘sober them up’ by giving them a cold shower as this might lower their body temperature even more, or cause them to lose consciousness in the water, which could be dangerous

Your primary focus should be on getting medical assistance as quickly as possible, as this can make all the difference in saving their life.

Treatment for alcohol addiction

If you’ve experienced alcohol poisoning, or are worried about the amount you’re drinking, this might be a sign that you’ve developed an addiction. This can be a challenging and enduring struggle that needs professional support.

Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for alcohol use disorder. Seeking help from healthcare professionals or addiction specialists is a crucial first step.

A first port of call might be for you to make an appointment to see your GP; they will be able to assess your symptoms and refer you for specialist alcohol addiction treatment if this is the best option for you.

Or you may wish to contact a private provider, like Priory, directly. Treatment at one of our dedicated treatment centres can include alcohol detoxification, therapy and access to support groups. We can also prescribe medication to you, helping you to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms and stay focused on long-term recovery.

If you experience alcohol poisoning, this could be the wake-up call you need. Accept you have a drinking problem, reach out for help and commit to changing your life.

Remember that recovery is possible and you don’t have to struggle alone. There is a network of support available to help you overcome your drinking problem, and lead a healthier and happier life.

Start Your Journey to Recovery

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding addiction treatment and rehabilitation, please call 0330 056 6023 or book a FREE ADDICTION ASSESSMENT.

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