The idea of an “overdose” is something that is typically associated with drugs, whether it’s prescription medication like painkillers or sleeping pills or illicit substances such as heroin or methamphetamine. Many people do not think of overdoses in relation to drinking too much alcohol.
However, it is absolutely possible to overdose on alcohol, also known as alcohol poisoning. It is not something to be trivialized as just “drinking too much,” as it is as serious and potentially deadly as overdosing on the previously mentioned drugs.
An alcohol overdose occurs when there is an excess of alcohol in the bloodstream to the point where the brain is unable to handle basic functions you typically never have to consciously be aware of, including heart rate, breathing, and body temperature control. During an overdose, these essential, life-supporting functions shut down.
The reason for this is that alcohol is what is known as a central nervous system depressant, which means just what it sounds like: the more you drink, the more alcohol “depresses” or slows down activity within the nervous system. It does this by targeting a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that the brain produces naturally to block nerve signals that cause stress and anxiety from reaching the brain.
This process is what helps keep you calm, and when alcohol stimulates the brain’s GABA receptors into overproduction by mimicking GABA to activate them, it overwhelms your central nervous system with GABA. This is why alcohol use causes feelings of lowered inhibitions, relaxation, and sedation. The excess GABA can also cause impaired movement, slowed breathing, irregular heart rate, and a lack of automatic response to things like choking.
Some alcohol overdose symptoms can be surprisingly subtle and difficult to differentiate from intoxication. The more noticeable symptoms of alcohol overdose are much more likely to be deadly and a sign that the overdose has gone unchecked for a dangerously long amount of time.
The symptoms of alcohol overdose include:
If you observe these alcohol poisoning symptoms in someone, it is imperative that you seek emergency medical care as soon as possible. You will need to be prepared to tell a hospital when the person overdosing was drinking, what they drank, and how much.
While the obvious answer to this question would be that alcohol overdose is caused by drinking too much in one sitting, the truth is that an overdose is what happens when you drink more alcohol than your body can safely process.
And what happens when you drink more than your body is capable of processing? Your liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol, but it is only able to handle so much alcohol at once, so what the liver is unable to break down instead gets redirected throughout the body.
At this point, the small intestine and the stomach will rapidly absorb the excess alcohol, which will then enter your bloodstream. The more you drink, the less your body is able to break down in an efficient manner, and alcohol begins to build up in your bloodstream.
Alcohol takes much longer to leave your body than it does to be absorbed by it. This means that you can consume a potentially fatal amount of alcohol before passing out, which is the point that many people associate with drinking too much.
Even once you have passed out and stopped drinking, your stomach and intestine are still releasing alcohol into your bloodstream, causing your blood alcohol level to continue to rise. This is part of why it is extremely dangerous to assume that someone who has drunk to the point of unconsciousness will be fine just “sleeping it off.”
So what’s the difference between drinking “too much” and drinking more than your body can process?
Well, “too much” alcohol is an extremely vague idea. How does “too much” translate between beers, mixed drinks, wine, or straight liquor? Eight beers and eight gin and tonics are certainly not created equal.
But the more important distinction is that while four beers, for example, may not seem like “too much” alcohol to someone, depending on a whole host of factors, it might be more than their bodies are capable of processing. Some of these factors that play a role in someone’s risk of overdosing on alcohol include:
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This is perhaps the most obvious factor when it comes to increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08.”
Studies have shown that men have a higher tendency than women to drink heavily and consume more alcohol in one sitting. However, it also takes fewer drinks for women to hit a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08.
Having a high tolerance for alcohol. This means you drink often enough that you have to drink much more to feel its effects, which creates an increased risk of alcohol overdose as you have to overwhelm your body with alcohol to become drunk.
Young adults are, statistically, more likely to drink to excess and overdose. However, the bodies of older adults and the elderly have a much harder time efficiently processing alcohol, so they do not have to drink to what would be considered “excess” to potentially overdose.
Your height and weight both play a role in determining how quickly your body absorbs alcohol. The smaller you are, the faster you absorb alcohol, to the point where a smaller person can experience an alcohol overdose after drinking the same amount of alcohol a larger person can safely consume without issue.
Combining alcohol with drugs is always a bad idea. Using stimulants while drinking can cause you to drink more by dulling alcohol’s depressant effects. Taking other central nervous system depressants while drinking means that it will take much less alcohol to trigger an overdose.
Health conditions that you might not even be thinking about, such as diabetes, can affect how your body handles alcohol and put you at a greater risk of alcohol poisoning.
There is definitely an amount of alcohol that would cause anyone who drank it to experience an overdose, depending on someone’s age, gender, height, weight, health, and more. But, the amount of alcohol they can safely process is going to vary hugely in comparison to someone else.
Do not assume that just because someone else can drink a certain amount of alcohol safely that you can drink the same amount without the risk of an alcohol overdose.
The short answer is yes, if alcohol poisoning goes untreated it can all-too-easily become fatal. In fact, roughly six people die as a result of an alcohol overdose every day.
Alcohol’s depressant effects include slowing or blocking signals to the brain that control automatic responses, essentially causing your body to shut down if you have drunk enough alcohol.
One of the most common ways someone dies of an alcohol overdose is by having their gag reflex, one of these automatic responses, suppressed.
At first, this may not seem like a major issue, but part of the reason that many people who overdrink vomit is that alcohol irritates the stomach.
If someone has drunk to the point of passing out, as their stomach continues to absorb alcohol they have an extremely high chance of vomiting and, without their gag reflex, are extremely likely to choke on their vomit and die from asphyxiation.
Other potentially deadly complications from an alcohol overdose include the previously mentioned seizures, as well as:
Even if you do not fatally overdose on alcohol, experiencing alcohol poisoning can still have catastrophic, potentially permanent effects that can cause serious future health problems.
One way to prevent an alcohol overdose is by limiting your alcohol consumption, but the most effective method for avoiding an alcohol overdose is to abstain from drinking altogether.
If you are unable to control how much alcohol you drink once you start or if you have seen this behavior in someone you care about, it is a clear sign of an alcohol use disorder, and it is vital you seek professional addiction services. Alcohol is dangerous, and detox must be taken into consideration before stopping. With top-notch facilities staffed by expert teams of doctors, clinicians, therapists, and more, Delphi Behavioral Health Group can help you find the best treatment program for you or your loved one.
Legg, T. J., Ph.D. (2017, November 22). Alcohol Overdose: Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/overdose#causes
Mayo Clinic. (2018, January 19). Alcohol Poisoning. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015, October). Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholOverdoseFactsheet/Overdosefact.htm