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Getting help quickly makes all the difference.

When does drunkenness cross the line into alcohol poisoning?

Knowing the difference between these two conditions could help you save a life.

Alcohol poisoning happens when someone drinks too much alcohol in a short time. But a person with alcohol poisoning is more than tipsy. They may show symptoms like vomiting, difficulty breathing, seizures and a dangerously low body temperature. 

Getting help right away by calling 911 can mean the difference between recovery and coma or even death. 

So, make the call immediately — even if you’re underage or worried about legal consequences. 

How do you get alcohol poisoning?

It doesn’t happen after one or two drinks. And if you drink a moderate amount of alcohol, over many hours with food and water, you’ll likely avoid it.

You may be more likely to get alcohol poisoning because of:

  • Weight: The less you weigh, the faster you’ll feel drunk and eventually sick. 
  • Gender: Alcohol tends to affect women more quickly than men.
  • Time and frequency: Your body can process a serving of alcohol in about an hour.  Binge drinking can overwhelm your body and lead to an overdose.

Some people believe certain drinks are less likely to cause alcohol poisoning. The reality is, most alcoholic drinks have the same effect, just with different amounts of liquid. 

Here’s a breakdown of drinks that contain the same amount of alcohol:

  • 12 fl. oz. of 5% alcohol beer
  • 8 – 9 fl. oz. of 7% alcohol malt liquor
  • 5 fl. oz. of 12% alcohol wine
  • 1.5 fl. oz. (a shot) of 40% alcohol distilled spirits (whiskey, vodka, tequila, rum)

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning

What’s the difference between being drunk and having alcohol poisoning? A drunk person may be talkative or active, while someone who has overdosed will generally feel sick, confused and weak. 

Common signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Pale and/or cold skin
  • Unconsciousness

“Choking is one of the biggest concerns,” says David Rupprecht, MD, Emergency Department medical director at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital. “Your body’s natural response is to throw up, but alcohol also reduces your gag reflex. These two things combined increase the risk of choking on your own vomit.”

If your friend or loved one shows any symptoms, it’s time to intervene. 

“Don’t assume someone is fine sleeping it off,” Dr. Rupprecht says. “Alcohol in the stomach and intestines continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate through the body even after a person stops drinking.”

Waiting for paramedics? Take these steps:

  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • If they’re conscious, keep them awake and sitting up.
  • If they can’t sit up, lay them down with their head turned to the side. 

What’s the difference between alcohol poisoning and a hangover?

Time and symptoms are the biggest difference between alcohol poisoning and hangovers. Hangovers happen hours after drinking and include the following symptoms:

  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Sensitivity to sound and light
  • Body aches and pains
  • Shaking

You can reduce the effects of a hangover by eating a balanced meal high in potassium (think bananas, leafy greens, beans, nuts, dairy and starchy vegetables) and drinking water. 

Alcohol poisoning, on the other hand, can’t be treated with rest, food, coffee or other home remedies. Instead, treatments focus on keeping vital signs stable and staying hydrated. At a hospital, this is typically done through an I.V. to bypass the stomach.

“Getting someone medical attention is the best way to help,” says Dr. Rupprecht. “At the hospital, we can reduce the long-term effects of alcohol poisoning while making sure recovery is as fast and safe as possible.” 

Bottom line, excessive or binge drinking can be dangerous. Keep in mind that alcohol affects everyone differently and knowing the signs of alcohol poisoning can save someone’s life — maybe even your own. 

Next steps: 

Find a Geisinger ER near you
Meet David Rupprecht, MD
Learn about emergency care at Geisinger

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