Alcohol overdose: How much amount of alcohol to OD?

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Alcohol intoxication is a condition in which a toxic amount of alcohol has been consumed, usually in a short period of time and typically leads to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeds 0.08 g/dL. More here on overdose amounts and well as the signs and solutions for acute intoxication or alcohol poisoning. […]

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Reviewed by: Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D. Dr. Juan Goecke, M.D.

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Alcohol intoxication is a condition in which a toxic amount of alcohol has been consumed, usually in a short period of time and typically leads to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeds 0.08 g/dL. More here on overdose amounts and well as the signs and solutions for acute intoxication or alcohol poisoning.

TABLE OF CONTENTS


How Alcohol Works in the Brain

Alcohol is a nervous system depressant and is considered a drug because it has no nutritional value. When drinking moderately, the user feels only the regular effects of drinking. When you drink too much, problems appear. But how does it affect the brain, exactly?

Alcohol is absorbed directly through the walls of the stomach and the small intestine, goes into the bloodstream, and travels throughout the body and to the brain. Alcohol is quickly absorbed and can be measured within 30 to 70 minutes after a person has had a drink.

There, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.

What is Alcohol Overdose?

The term “overdose” does not quite fit alcohol use. This term is mainly used for other kind of drugs. In medical terms an alcohol overdose is called “intoxication”. The term “poisoning” may be used too.

Therefore, alcohol intoxication is a condition in which a toxic amount of alcohol has been consumed, usually in a short period of time and typically leads to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeds 0.08 g/dL. Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions such as:

  • Breathing.
  • Heart rate.
  • Temperature control.

In cases of alcohol overdose, these functions begin to shut down. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Clammy skin.
  • Confusion.
  • Difficulty remaining conscious.
  • Dulled responses.
  • Extremely low body temperature.
  • Seizures.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Trouble with breathing.
  • Vomiting.

Problem Drinking

There are three main types of problem drinking:

1. Binge drinking.
2. Chronic drinking.
3. Heavy drinking.

Binge drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) define binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men, in about 2 hours on at least 1 day in the past month. [1] [2]

Chronic drinking. An alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) may be present if you’re drinking more than 7 drinks per week for women or 14 drinks per week for me. Take this self-assessment online from Rethinking Drinking to assess a possible problem. [3]

Heavy drinking. SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.

What is BAC?

The amount of alcohol in a person’s body is measured by the weight of the alcohol in a certain volume of blood (measured in grams per deciliter). This is called the blood alcohol concentration or “BAC.” The Cleveland Clinic offers a BAC calculator online. [4]

How fast a person’s BAC rises varies based on a number of factors:

1. The number of drinks. The more you drink, the higher your BAC.

2. How fast you drink. When alcohol is consumed quickly, you will reach a higher BAC than when it is consumed over a longer period of time.

3. Your gender. Women generally have less water and more body fat per pound of body weight than men do. Alcohol does not go into fat cells as easily as other cells, so more alcohol remains in the blood of women.

4. Your weight. The more you weigh, the more water is present in your body. This water dilutes the alcohol and lowers the BAC.

5. Food in your stomach. Absorption will be slowed if you have had something to eat.

Typical BAC Intoxication Levels

Impairment depends directly on BAC. Here, we’ll present a sequence of the signs and symptoms due to the increase of BAC:

0.02%: Altered mood, relaxation, slight body warmth, some loss of judgment.
0.05%: Exaggerated behavior, impaired judgment, lowered alertness, may have loss of small-muscle control (e.g., focusing your eyes), release of inhibition, usually good feeling.
0.08%: Harder to detect danger, judgment, self-control, reasoning, and memory are impaired, muscle coordination becomes poor (e.g., balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing).
0.10%: Clear deterioration of reaction time and control, poor coordination, and slowed thinking, slurred speech.
0.15%: Far less muscle control than normal, major loss of balance, vomiting may occur (unless this level is reached slowly or a person has developed a tolerance for alcohol).

How Much Is Too Much

How much alcohol is too much varies by person. The amount of drink in the glass does not determine the actual amount of alcohol consumed. For instance, there is almost no difference in the alcohol level between light beer and a regular one. The level of pure alcohol, ethanol, in a single drink, is what adds up when users are consuming several glasses or even bottles in a row. One mixed drink, such as a cocktail, multiplies the alcohol level within a single drink.

Intoxication or poisoning are related directly to the amount of alcohol that you drink in one setting. This NIAAA illustration shows you one serving size of alcohol. [5]

In the United States, what is considered a standard drink contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol. That evens out to 1 big glass of beer 5% alcohol (12fl), or 1 glass of table wine 12% alcohol (5fl), or 1 shot of tequila 40% alcohol (1.5 fl). No more than two drinks daily and no more than 14 drinks weekly is considered moderate for men. No more than one drink daily and no more than seven drinks weekly is considered moderate for women.

It takes roughly 90 minutes for a healthy liver to metabolize each of these drinks, consumed separately. When consumed faster, or when drinkers drink multiple doses of alcohol with higher ethanol presence at the same time, the blood concentrations are higher and the intoxication affects the user.

Signs and Complications of Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication can be dangerous for many reasons, both for the user (acute and chronic) and for surrounding people. Possible signs and complications of alcohol intoxication include:

To you:

  • Bluish skin color.
  • Coma.
  • Dilation of blood vessels (may induce to hypertension or hypotension).
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Inability to wake up.
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (chronic).
  • Increased risk of liver cirrhosis (chronic).
  • Increased risk of stroke.
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).
  • Loss of balance and motor skills.
  • Mental confusion.
  • Paleness.
  • Poor judgment.
  • Reduced reaction time.
  • Seizures.
  • Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute).
  • Slurred speech.
  • Stupor.
  • Vomiting.

To others:

  • Damage to a developing fetus.
  • Increased risk of motor-vehicle traffic crashes.
  • Violence (physical and psychological).

It is not necessary to have all the above signs or symptoms before you seek medical help. A person with alcohol intoxication who is unconscious or cannot be awakened is at risk of dying. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, someone who drinks a fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop breathing. Even if someone survives an alcohol overdose, he or she can suffer irreversible brain damage. [6]

What You Need to Do?

If you suspect that someone is experiencing extreme alcohol intoxication or alcohol poisoning (even if you don’t see the classic signs and symptoms of an emergency) seek immediate medical care.

Here is what to do:

  1. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Never assume the person will sleep off alcohol intoxication.
  2. 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.
  3. Do not leave an unconscious person alone. Because alcohol intoxication affects the way the gag reflex works, someone with alcohol intoxication may choke on his or her own vomit and not be able to breathe. While waiting for help, do not try to make the person vomit because he or she could choke.
  4. 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.

If you plan on drinking, plan not to drive. You should:

  • Always wear your seat belt. It is your best defense against impaired drivers.
  • Designate a sober driver.
  • Plan a safe way home in advance and never drive after drinking.
  • Use a taxi, call a sober friend or family member or use public transportation.

Prognosis

So, what happens after cases of alcohol overdose?

It depends upon treatment. According to College Drinking Prevention.gov, untreated alcohol poisoning can lead to [7]:

  • Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
  • Choking on his her own vomit.
  • Heart beats irregularly or stops.
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures.
  • Severe dehydration can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.

Even if you’re worried about the consequences… always seek medical help for a friend who has had too much to drink. Care enough to help! Always be safe, not sorry.

Hangovers

The experience of effects following heavy consumption of alcohol is called a “hangover”. Hangovers usually lasts for up to 24 hours and are mostly related to the blood alcohol concentrations. Some hangover symptoms are related to the alcohol intoxication and its withdrawal symptoms. Often, alcoholics experience memory blackouts and/or live with a permanently damaged liver.

The liver’s performance on metabolizing alcohol depends on many factors such as:

  • Age.
  • How much the person usually drinks.
  • Overall health status.
  • The family history when it comes to alcohol abuse.
  • What and how often the person drinks alcohol.

People who have been drinking heavily for several days or weeks may not only experience an extreme hangover – for up to 72 hours – but may have withdrawal symptoms after the period of intoxication. This is definitely a sign that the person needs professional help!

Alcohol Intoxication Death Rate

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 38 million U.S. adults report binge drinking an average of four times per month and consuming an average of eight drinks per episode. On average, six persons, mostly adult men, die from alcohol poisoning each day in the United States. . The death rate for males was three times the death rate for females. [8]

More than 25,000 people die from alcohol-induced causes in the UNITED STATES per each year. 76% of alcohol intoxication deaths are among adults ages 35 to 64 and about 76% of those who die from alcohol intoxication are men. [9] This includes deaths from dependent and non-dependent use of alcohol, as well as deaths from accidental intoxication by alcohol. More on alcohol-related death data from the NIAAA here. [10]

So…if you’re engaging in repetitive drinking…why not stop?

You risk more than just a hangover.

Let’s verify your coverage for treatment at an American Addiction Centers location. Your information is always confidential.

 

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Do You Have a Drinking Problem?

According to the NIAAA, signs of a drinking problem are fairly clear cut. If you present some of the following… you may have a drinking problem [11]:

  • Decreasing alcohol tolerance.
  • Felling palpitations after drinking.
  • Imperious need of alcohol.
  • Irritability.
  • Nervousness.
  • Tremors.

You know when you start drinking, but you have no idea how everything ended.
You miss your responsibilities.

Take hope!

Drinking problems can be treated.

Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition. As such, it is treated medically. Reach out for help from any other follow medical professionals. You can first get a diagnosis and then enter treatment. Professionals who diagnose drinking problems include:

  • Psychiatrists.
  • Psychologists.
  • Medical doctors.
  • Social workers.

Your Questions

If there is something more you would like to know about alcohol’s effects, alcohol intoxication, or any related issue … please send us your question in the comments section below. We will try to help you ASAP!

We love to hear from our readers. So, send us your questions and we’ll try to get you the most accurate and useful answer possible.

Reference Sources: [1] NIAAA: Drinking Levels Defined
[2] SAMHSA: Binge Drinking: Terminology And Patterns Of Use
[3] NIAAA: What Are Symptoms Of Alcohol Use Disorder?
[4] Cleveland Clinic: Calculate Your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)
[5] NIAAA: Understanding Dangers Of Alcohol Overdose
[6] NIAAA: A Word About Alcohol Poisoning
[7] College Drinking: Facts About Alcohol Overdose (Alcohol Poisoning)
[8] CDC: Vital Signs: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths – United States, 2010 – 2012
[9] CDC: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths
[10] NIAAA: Alcohol-Related Morbidity And Mortality
[11] NIAAA: Alcohol Use Disorder
CDC: During Binges, U.S. Adults Have 17 Billion Drinks A Year
CDC: Fact Sheets: Age 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age
CDC: Fact Sheets: Alcohol Use And Your Health
CDC: Fact Sheets: Underage Drinking
MAYO CLINIC: Alcohol Poisoning
NIAAA: Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers Of Drinking Too Much
NIAAA: Alcohol’s Damaging Effects On The Brain
NIAAA: Alcohol’s Effects On The Body
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D. is a general surgeon practicing women's focused medici...
Dr. Goecke is a medical doctor and general surgeon with personal experience of...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.

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