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What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition that causes dangerous symptoms and can stop your body from working properly.

Everyone’s body has a different tolerance level, so what causes alcohol poisoning in one person may have a lesser effect on another.

In this article, we look at the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, how long it takes to recover from alcohol poisoning, and the complications of alcohol poisoning.

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks a large volume of alcohol, and their body cannot cope with its effects.

It usually happens when someone consumes a lot of alcohol in a short space of time, also known as binge drinking. Alcohol poisoning caused by long-term binge drinking can lead to very serious health problems and even death.

Alcohol is essentially a toxin. When a person drinks alcohol, it passes into their bloodstream and to their brain, kidneys, lungs, and liver. The liver does the job of filtering out the alcohol into the bloodstream to keep the body working properly.

It takes the average person about an hour to process each unit of alcohol they drink. If someone drinks a lot of alcohol very quickly, their body may struggle to process it and begin to show signs of alcohol poisoning.

How do I know if I have alcohol poisoning?

There are several signs of alcohol poisoning that you can look out for: experiencing these usually means you have drunk more alcohol than your body can handle.

If you are experiencing alcohol poisoning you might feel dizzy, confused, and disoriented, and/or be unable to speak without slurring your words. You might also feel very cold because alcohol reduces body temperature.

Other signs of alcohol poisoning include vomiting, erratic breathing and an irregular heart rate. Extreme symptoms include loss of bladder or bowel control, passing out, and having a fit or seizure.

Some of these symptoms including fits and seizures can be extremely serious or even life-threatening. If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately.

What are the symptoms of alcohol poisoning?

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include:

  • Dizziness and loss of balance and coordination
  • Confusion
  • Slurring words
  • Feeling very cold
  • Vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Erratic breathing
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fitting and seizures

Some of these symptoms including seizures and fits are extremely serious and could be life-threatening.

If someone you know experiences these symptoms, you should seek urgent medical attention.

If you have concerns that a loved one might be drinking too much, or simply want to monitor your own intake, you can use this tool from Drink Aware to find out how their/your alcohol intake compares to the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines.

What are the complications of alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning can occur when you drink a large quantity of alcohol in a short space of time, and your body cannot cope with its effects.

This stops the body from functioning in a normal way, which can cause serious short and long-term health complications.

Possible complications of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Inability to think straight leading to poor decision-making and increased risk-taking
  • Choking on your own vomit
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Risk of injury from loss of consciousness
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Fits and seizures
  • Dehydration
  • Liver and heart failure

People who binge drink and suffer alcohol poisoning on a regular basis may also experience memory loss, anxiety, brain damage caused by dehydration, fits and seizures, and/or an irregular heartbeat.

Alcohol is also cited as a causal factor in many health conditions including mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, and depression.

What can be done to stop alcohol poisoning?

The only way to prevent alcohol poisoning and the long-term effects is to avoid drinking alcohol in large quantities, particularly on a regular basis.

According to the HSE, women should consume fewer than 11 standard drinks (110g pure alcohol) over the course of one week, with a minimum of two alcohol-free days. Men are advised to consume fewer than 17 standard drinks (170g pure alcohol) spread out over the week. Again, aiming for a minimum of two alcohol-free days.

In Ireland, a single standard drink contains around 10 grams of pure alcohol.

Drinking in moderation can minimise the risk to your health and reduce the likelihood of short and long-term complications.

Avoiding binge drinking (consuming a lot of alcohol in a short space of time) and drinking slowly also gives the body time to process any alcohol being consumed.

Bear in mind however, that there is no minimum volume of alcohol that can cause alcohol poisoning. The effects of alcohol on the body can vary depending on a person’s age, gender, weight, whether they have used illicit drugs or prescription medications, what and how much they have drunk, and if they have eaten food.

Drinking on an empty stomach is dangerous and intensifies the effects of alcohol. Eating food before moderate drinking can help the body absorb alcohol, as food in the stomach slows down the rate at which the body absorbs alcohol, thereby giving the liver more time to process it, and reducing the likelihood of adverse effects.

How long does alcohol poisoning last?

How long alcohol poisoning lasts depends on several factors, including:

  • The strength and amount of alcohol a person has had to drink
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Gender
  • If they have taken any prescription medications or illegal drugs
  • Whether or not they have eaten

These things all influence how quickly a person’s body can clear the alcohol from their system.

In very serious cases, alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening and/or lead to a stay in hospital for treatment.

How soon can you drink after having alcohol poisoning?

Drinking too soon after alcohol poisoning could slow down the recovery process.

If a person has suffered alcohol poisoning, it is sensible for them to avoid drinking alcohol completely to allow their body time to recover from its effects.

How long it takes a person’s body to recover depends on several factors including their age, weight, gender, and if they have any underlying medical conditions.

If you have concerns that a loved one might be drinking too much, or simply want to monitor your own intake, you can use this tool from Drink Aware to find out how their/your alcohol intake compares to the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines.

Can drinking water flush out alcohol?

While drinking water hydrates and helps the body to detox, it won’t flush alcohol out of the body completely.

Once alcohol is in a person’s bloodstream, it takes time for the liver to process it. Even if someone stopped drinking an hour ago, their liver will still be processing what they have already drunk. On average, it takes the body one hour to process one unit of alcohol.

When drinking alcohol, a good rule to follow is to drink one glass of water after every one or two alcoholic drinks. This helps keep the body hydrated and can lessen the effects of any alcohol consumed.

Giving water to someone who has alcohol poisoning can help counter dehydration, but they should drink it slowly to avoid being sick. Further guidance on alcohol poisoning can be found on the HSE website.

Where can I get an alcohol test?

AlphaBiolabs is one of Ireland’s leading providers of laboratory testing services for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector.

Our accredited laboratory can test a variety of samples for the presence of alcohol and its metabolites, including breath, blood, hair, and nails.

We also offer alcohol monitoring in the form of SCRAM Continuous Alcohol Monitoring®.

To discuss your alcohol testing needs, call our Customer Services team on 01 402 9466 or email info@alphabiolabs.ie.

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Marie Law AlphaBiolabs

Marie Law

Head of Toxicology at AlphaBiolabs

A highly-skilled and respected scientist with over 13 years’ experience in the field of forensics, Marie joined AlphaBiolabs in 2022 and oversees the company’s growing toxicology team.

As Head of Toxicology, Marie’s day-to-day responsibilities include maintaining the highest quality testing standards for toxicology and further enhancing AlphaBiolabs’ drug and alcohol testing services for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector.

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