If we drink a lot in a short space of time, the concentration of alcohol in the blood can stop our bodies from working properly and lead to alcohol poisoning.  

Drinking large quantities of alcohol very quickly can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be extremely dangerous. If you think someone might be experiencing alcohol poisoning, even if you have doubts, call 999 for an ambulance. 

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is when we drink a lot of alcohol in a short space of time, which leads to the alcohol in the blood stopping the body from working properly. Both men and women are at risk, however women tend to have higher blood alcohol levels after drinking the same amount of alcohol as men, so may be even more at risk. 

There is no minimum amount of alcohol that can cause alcohol poisoning 

What many people might not know is that there is no minimum amount of alcohol a person needs to drink to cause alcohol poisoningIt depends on age, sex, size, weight, how fast someone has been drinking, how much they have eaten, their general health and whether they have taken medication or drugs. 

To keep your risk from alcohol harm low, it is important to stick within the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines. Both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week. But to keep short-term risks (like accidents or injury) from drinking low, limit how much you drink on one occasion. 

What does too much alcohol do to the body? 

If someone drinks a lot in a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in the blood can stop the body from working properly. It can: 

  • Slow down brain functions, which causes a person to lose their sense of balance 
  • Irritate the stomach, which can cause vomiting  
  • Dangerously affect the nerves that control a person’s breathing and their heartbeat 
  • Dehydrate the body 
  • Lower the body’s temperature, which can lead to hypothermia 
  • Lower blood sugar levels, risking brain damage 

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning  

It’s crucial to be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning in order to help someone quickly, because they won’t be able to help themselves. 

Alcohol poisoning can be difficult to spot. Someone may have only had a few drinks, or they could have had several, but this isn’t always an indicator.  

Don’t wait for all the symptoms to show before getting help 

By recognising the signs of alcohol poisoning and knowing what to do, you could save someone’s life. 

Signs and symptoms to look out for: 

  • Nausea 
  • Confusion 
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control  
  • Passing out’ 
  • A drop in blood sugar to very low levels, risking brain damage 
  • Breathing and swallowing reflexes, which runs the serious risk of breathing vomit into lungs which can cause choking 

In the most serious cases, alcohol poisoning can cause slowed breathing and result in coma or even death.  

Five things you can do if someone is showing signs they have alcohol poisoning 

  1. Try to keep them awake and sitting up 
  2. Give them some water, if they can drink it 
  3. Lie them on their side in the recovery position if they’ve passed out, and check they’re breathing properly 
  4. Keep them warm 
  5. Stay with them and monitor their symptoms 

If you think someone might have alcohol poisoning, even if you have doubts, call 999 for an ambulance. 

Alcohol poisoning: what NOT to do 

  • Never leave someone to sleep it off. The amount of alcohol in someone’s blood continues to rise even when they’re not drinking. That’s because alcohol in the digestive system carries on being absorbed into the bloodstream. Too much alcohol in the blood stops the body working properly.  
  • Never give them a coffee. Alcohol dehydrates the body. Coffee will make someone who is already dehydrated even more so. Severe dehydration can cause permanent brain damage. 
  • Never make them sick. Their gag reflex may not be working properly which means they could choke on their vomit.  
  • Never walk them around. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down your brain’s functions and affects your sense of balance. Walking them around might cause accidents.  
  • Never put them under a cold shower. Alcohol lowers your body temperature, which could lead to hypothermia. A cold shower could make them colder than they already are.  
  • Never let them drink more alcohol. The amount of alcohol in their bloodstream could become dangerously high.

Download our alcohol poisoning poster.

Tips to stay safe and in control

  • Set a limit. Avoid drinking too much in the first place. 
  • Eat a meal. A healthy meal before drinking can help slow down the absorption of alcohol. 
  • Alternate your drinks. Make sure to drink water or soft drinks to slow down the rate you consume alcohol. 
  • Have a plan. If you’re out, make sure your phone is charged and you have a plan to get home. 
  • Stick with your friends. Incidents and injury are more likely if you’re on your own. 
  • It’s ok to ask if they’re ok. Look out for others. 

Worried about your own or someone else’s drinking? 

Drinkchat is our free online chat serviceOur trained advisors are on hand between 10am-2pm, Monday to Friday, to provide confidential advice.  

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Last reviewed: 30 April 2020

Next review due: 30 April 2023