Redfern Health Center

Alcohol Poisoning

Quick Links:

As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can kill just as easily as narcotics (e.g., heroin), barbiturates (downers) or other sedatives.

Too many college students say they wish they had sought medical treatment for a friend who died of acute alcohol intoxication and alcohol overdose. Many friends end up feeling responsible for alcohol-related tragedies that could have easily been prevented. Clemson University has a Medical Alcohol Amnesty Policy (MAAP) intended to facilitate access and remove barriers to students who require medical assistance in alcohol related emergencies, and to provide the opportunity for caring, non-punitive interventions in response to such incidents.

Common myths about sobering up include drinking black coffee, taking a cold bath or shower, sleeping it off or walking it off. They don't work. Only time reverses the effects of alcohol — something you might not have if you or someone else has alcohol poisoning. Many factors affect an individual's level of intoxication, so it can be difficult to gauge exactly how much is too much.

What Happens When You Get an Alcohol Overdose?

When the concentration of alcohol in the brain becomes high enough to depress the areas of the brain responsible for consciousness and respiration, the drinker can lapse into a coma, stop breathing and die.

Alcohol also depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as the gag reflex, which prevents choking. Since alcohol irritates the stomach, people who drink an excessive amount often vomit. Without a properly functioning gag reflex, they could choke on vomit, which could kill an unconscious person.

A person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while passed out as alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream. Assuming the person will “sleep it off” is dangerous.

What Should you do if you Suspect Someone has had an Alcohol Overdose?

If they are conscious and responsive
  • Stay with them. Check often to make sure they are still conscious and responsive.
  • If they are lying down, make certain that they stay on their side, not their back. (See The Bacchus Maneuver, below.)
  • Before you touch them, tell them exactly what you are going to do. Be aware of any signs of aggression. Do not ridicule, judge, threaten or try to counsel them.
  • Remain calm and be firm. Avoid communicating feelings of anxiety or anger.
  • Keep them quiet and comfortable. If they are in the sun, move them to the shade. If cold, move them to a warm place and offer a blanket.
  • Don't give them food, drink or medication of any kind.
  • Remember that only time will sober up a drunk person. Walking, showering or drinking coffee will not help and might actually harm.
If they are unconscious, semiconscious or unresponsive, check for these symptoms of alcohol poisoning or drug overdose
  • They cannot be roused and are unresponsive to your voice, shaking or pinching their skin.
  • Their skin is cold, clammy, pale, bluish and/or blotchy.
  • Their breathing is slow — eight or fewer breaths per minute.
  • They experience lapses in breathing — more than 10 seconds between breaths.
  • They exhibit mental confusion, stupor or coma.
  • They have seizures, convulsions or rigid spasms.
  • They vomit while asleep or unconscious and do not awaken.

If any of these symptoms of alcohol poisoning exist, call 911 for help. While waiting for emergency personnel, do the following:

  • Gently turn them onto his/her side and into the Bacchus Maneuver position.
  • Don't leave them alone at any time.
  • Be prepared to administer CPR.
  • Remember that a person who has passed out might die.

What can happen if an alcohol overdose goes untreated?

  • A person can choke on his/her own vomit.
  • Breathing can slow down, become irregular and stop.
  • Heart might beat irregularly and stop.
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can lead to seizures.
  • Severe dehydration from vomiting, which can cause seizures, permanent brain damage or death.

Even if the victim lives, an alcohol overdose can cause irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking is especially dangerous because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before passing out.

Don't be afraid to seek medical help for a friend who has had too much to drink. Don't worry that your friend might become angry or embarrassed. It's better to have them alive and angry than dead.

The Bacchus Maneuver

If someone passes out from drinking too much, you can help by positioning them so they won't choke if they vomit. If you are worried about them, get medical attention, especially if you can't awaken them to the point that they can talk to you.

The Bacchus Maneuver:

1. Raise the arm that is closest to you above their head. Prepare to roll them toward you.

Raise arm

2. Gently roll them toward you, guarding their head from hitting the floor. The head should rest in front of the arm, not on it.

Roll towards you

3. Tilt the head up to maintain airway. Tuck their nearest hand under the cheek to help maintain head tilt and raise the face off the floor.

Tilt head

4. Check on them often.