This page includes tips and information on how to prevent alcohol poisoning, how to keep your drinking under control, and where to find help if a person has an alcohol or substance problem.
What is alcohol poisoning
Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing and the gag reflex (which prevents choking). A fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop these functions.
It is common for someone who drank too much alcohol to vomit, since alcohol is an irritant to the stomach. This means the person could choke on his or her vomit, which could cause death by asphyxiation in an unconscious person.
A person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. Even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. It is dangerous to assume the person will be fine by sleeping it off.
Critical signs of alcohol poisoning
- mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused
- slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute)
- irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
- hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness
What if I think someone has alcohol poisoning
- know the danger signals
- do not wait for all symptoms to be present
- be aware that a person who has passed out may die
If there is any suspicion of an alcohol overdose, call 911 for help. Don’t try to guess the level of drunkenness.
What if alcohol poisoning is left untreated
- Victim chokes on his or her own vomit.
- Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
- Heart beats irregularly or stops.
- Hypothermia (low body temperature).
- Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures.
- Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.
Even if the victim lives, an alcohol overdose can lead to irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking (which often happens on a bet or a dare) is especially dangerous because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before becoming unconscious.
Don’t be afraid to seek medical help for a friend who has had too much to drink. Don’t worry that your friend may become angry or embarrassed. Remember that you cared enough to help. Always be safe, not sorry.
How to prevent alcohol poisoning
Don’t let college folklore influence you to be under the influence. You don’t have to get liquored up every night in order to have a memorable college experience. In fact, one in five college students doesn’t drink at all. You’ll have many more memories of your years of higher education if drinking isn’t a central part of it.
Now that you’re in college, you’ve got the freedom to make your own decisions about your life. That includes how much and how often you drink. But before you start partying, get wise to a few facts you might not know:
- you can die from drinking too much
- a certain blood alcohol level can put you in a coma
Limit alcohol consumption. Alternate alcohol with another beverage, such as water or juice, and never drink on an empty stomach. Stop drinking immediately if you’re feeling sick or having difficulty walking or talking.
Look out for friends who have had too much to drink. If your friend has been vomiting or passes out, don’t leave him or her alone. And don’t hesitate to call an ambulance if necessary.
Stay safe. Never go anywhere alone; stick with friends. Be aware that sedatives can be added to drinks (even non-alcoholic ones), leaving students vulnerable to sexual assault. Never leave a drink unattended at a bar or party and never accept drinks from people you do not know.
Tips to keep your drinking under control
If you are struggling with a drinking problem, act now. If you ignore the problem it will only get worse. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem and it is your responsibility to fix it. Small changes can make a big difference in reducing your chances of having alcohol-related problems.
Here are some strategies to try. Check off some to try the first week, then add some others next week.
Keeping track. Keep track of how much you drink. Find a way that works for you, such as a 3x5" card in your pocket, check marks on a kitchen calendar, create a note for yourself in your phone, or even tally on your hand. If you make a note of each drink before you drink it, this will help you slow down when needed.
Counting and measuring. Know the standard drink sizes so you can count your drinks accurately. One standard drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 8-9 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of table wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof hard liquor. Measure drinks at home. Away from home it can be hard to know the number of standard drinks in mixed drinks. To keep track, you may need to ask the server or bartender “What’s in this?”.
Setting goals. Decide how many days a week you want to drink and how many drinks you’ll have on those days. It’s a good idea to have some days when you don’t drink. Drinking within the limits below reduces the chances of having an alcohol use disorder and related health problems.
For healthy men. No more than 4 drinks in a day and no more than 14 drinks in one week.
For healthy women. No more than 3 drinks in a day and no more than 7 drinks in a week.
Pacing and spacing. When you do drink, pace yourself. Sip slowly. Have no more than one drink with alcohol per hour. Alternate “drink spacers” (non-alcoholic drinks like water, soda or juice) with drinks containing alcohol.
Include food. Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Have some food so the alcohol will be absorbed more slowly into your system.
Avoid “triggers”. What triggers your urge to drink? If certain people or places make you drink even when you don’t want to, try to avoid them. If certain activities, times of day, or feelings trigger the urge, plan what you’ll do instead of drinking. If drinking at home is a problem, keep little or no alcohol there.
Plan to handle urges. When an urge hits, consider these options:
- Remind yourself of your reasons for changing.
- Talk it through with someone you trust. Get involved with a healthy, distracting activity.
- “Urge-surf” - instead of fighting the feeling, accept it and ride it out, knowing that it soon with crest like a wave and pass.
Know your “no”. You’re likely to be offered a drink at times when you don’t want one. Have a polite, convincing “no, thanks” ready. The faster you can say “no” to these offers, the less likely you are to give in. If you hesitate, it allows time to think of excuses to go along.
Help with an alcohol or substance problem
- SAMHSA.gov: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. Includes information about prevention of substance abuse and mental illness, behavioral health treatments and services, and recovery and support.
- CollegeDrinkingPrevention: One-stop resource for comprehensive research-based information on issues related to alcohol abuse and binge drinking among college students.
- Addiction Center: Strives for the most up-to-date information to guide those to education, help and recovery. With constantly updated information, it is a one-stop source for your drug and addiction information needs
- Alcohol Awareness and College Students - Helping students and their peers to stay safe while drinking college
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Narcotics Anonymous