How Long Does Alcohol Poisoning Last? (& Timeline)
Alcohol generally comes in the form of wine, beer, or hard liquor. The chemical that reacts with the brain and changes bodily functions is ethanol, a specific type of alcohol formed during the fermentation process. It is legal in the United States for adults ages 21 and older to consume alcohol, although it is also one of the most abused intoxicating substances. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 17 million adults ages 18 and older had a diagnosable alcohol use disorder, once referred to as alcoholism. Thousands more people across the country struggle with heavy drinking or binge drinking; though they do not qualify as alcohol use disorder, they can also be extremely dangerous.
What Is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is one of the risks of problem drinking. This kind of poisoning occurs when a person consumes too much alcohol in too short a period of time – the body cannot metabolize the chemical fast enough, and organ systems begin to shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found, in 2015, that an average of six people die every day from alcohol poisoning. While many people are concerned about college students who binge drink at parties, 76 percent of people who died from alcohol poisoning were between the ages of 35 and 64.
There are 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths in the US every year, and alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder typically are factors in 30 percent of these deaths.
Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks per occasion for men (four or more for women), and the CDC found that adults self-reported eight drinks on average per binge.
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
The most common symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Stumbling or falling
- Changes in breathing, especially irregular or slow breathing
- Blue-tinged skin from oxygen deprivation
- Hypothermia or low body temperature
- Passing out and unable to wake up
Alcohol poisoning is extremely dangerous, and if a person exhibits any of these symptoms, they may need emergency medical attention.
The CUPS acronym can be a useful method for remembering the most prominent symptoms of alcohol poisoning:
- Cold or clammy skin (also bluish or very pale)
- Unconscious or unfocused
- Puking uncontrollably, suddenly, or frequently
- Slow or shallow breathing
These symptoms mean the person needs emergency medical attention.
How Does the Body Process Alcohol?
The liver can process one serving of alcohol per hour. Standard serving measurements for types of alcohol include:
- 12 ounces of beer at 5 percent alcohol
- A 5-ounce glass of wine at 12 percent alcohol
- 5 ounces of hard liquor at 80 proof
One of these is a serving, and consuming one per hour will raise a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) slowly but not dangerously for legal adults. Consuming more than that is likely to raise the BAC to 0.08 – when it is illegal to drive due to intoxication – or higher.
Dangerous cognitive and physical changes begin after 0.08; life-threatening symptoms being at 0.31 and higher. People who have little tolerance to alcohol are more likely to die when their BAC reaches between 0.30 and 0.45.
- Impaired balance, coordination, speech, reaction time, and comprehension
- Impaired decision-making abilities and judgment
- Loss of consciousness
- Blackouts or amnesia
Alcohol poisoning may not require consuming much alcohol, depending on age, tolerance, gender, body weight, health, and other factors. Generally, a man weighing about 160 pounds will experience alcohol poisoning after consuming 15 shots of hard liquor in 3-4 hours; a woman weighing 120 pounds is likely to develop alcohol poisoning after consuming nine shots of hard liquor in the same amount of time. Again, individual factors can change these amounts, but essentially, consuming more than one alcoholic beverage per hour will lead to intoxication. The more alcohol consumed, the more likely alcohol poisoning becomes.
How Long Does Alcohol Remain in the Body?
There are different tests that can determine if a person has consumed alcohol within a certain timeframe.
- A blood test can detect alcohol metabolites for 12 hours after consumption.
- A breathalyzer can detect alcohol in the system for 24 hours.
- Saliva tests can detect alcohol consumption for 1-5 days after consumption.
- Urine tests can find alcohol for 3-5 days after consumption.
- Hair follicle tests can detect any alcohol consumption within the past 90 days.
The first two tests rely on metabolites while the body continues to break down alcohol and eliminate it from the body. However, drinking one drink will not affect the brain for that long.
Consuming several drinks in a short amount of time means alcohol continues to enter the bloodstream even after the person stops drinking. If a person binge drinks, especially if they begin to experience alcohol poisoning, their BAC will continue to rise for 30-40 minutes after their last drink because the liver is still processing the previous beverages.
The alcohol a person consumes that leads to alcohol poisoning will remain in their body for several hours, continuing to cause damage to the brain and other organs. Because their BAC continues to rise, even after they stop drinking, it is important to make sure the person gets help from medical professionals.
Call 911 immediately if alcohol poisoning is suspected.
How to Help a Person Suffering from Alcohol Poisoning
People with alcohol poisoning do not sleep this condition off. Their symptoms will get worse; they are more likely to choke on their own vomit, stop breathing due to suppressed breathing patterns, have a seizure, or never wake up. Emergency medical help is the only way a person can survive alcohol poisoning, and it is better to call 911 than allow a person to suffer this condition, even if they have only a few symptoms.
While waiting for emergency responders to arrive, a person suffering from alcohol poisoning can be helped with a few steps.
- 1. If the person is awake, try to keep them awake.
- 2. If they are conscious, keep them in a sitting position.
- 3. Get them to drink small sips of water to stay hydrated.
- 4. Keep them away from alcoholic beverages or other drugs.
- 5. If the person is unconscious, put them in the recovery position.
- 6. Stay with them until help arrives.
Urban Myths about Helping Someone Who Drank Too Much
Some widespread advice regarding how to help a person who is very intoxicated is simply wrong. Common misconceptions about ways to help a person sober up or avoid alcohol poisoning include:
- Drink coffee. This will actually dehydrate them further, increasing the risk of seizures.
- Sleep it off. If a person is left alone and goes to sleep, they may never wake up.
- Walk it off. Walking around increases the risk of falls, which can cause serious injuries.
- Exercise. Although the body may process alcohol faster with aerobic exercise, for people who are suffering alcohol poisoning, this will cause their BAC to continue to rise.
- Take a cold shower. One of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning is hypothermia, so a cold shower will only cause the body’s temperature to fall further, leading to shock.
- Take medicine. Anything other than water can interact with alcohol, increasing the risk of choking, vomiting, or additional poisoning.
Treating Problem Drinking
After a person experiences alcohol poisoning, it may be an ideal time to talk to them if they have a drinking problem. There are many ways for a person to get help overcoming alcohol use disorder, binge drinking, heavy drinking, or any other kind of problem drinking.
Although these are all different approaches to treatment, using a combination of these creates the best support system for long-term recovery.
- Behavioral treatment: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and similar habit-changing therapies, focus on adjusting a person’s understanding of routine activities and reactions to stress, managing life, and engaging with others. Inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs are founded on this process, which can take months to complete.
- Medications: For problem drinking, some medications like acamprosate, disulfiram, or naltrexone can make drinking unpleasant or change the experience of drinking. These medicines all have different interactions and work with different people, so it is very important to consult a doctor to begin this kind of treatment. Additionally, medication therapy for alcohol use disorder does not ease withdrawal symptoms, but begins after a person successfully detoxes.
- Mutual support groups: The most popular form of support group to overcome problem drinking is Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are dozens of spinoffs, variations, and even divergent approaches to peer support throughout the recovery process.
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