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Alcohol Toxicity - An Overview

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Many are unaware of alcohol poisoning, a crucial medical side effect of taking alcohol. Read the article to know what alcohol toxicity is and how to manage it.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At September 13, 2022
Reviewed AtSeptember 13, 2022

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, also called alcohol intoxication or alcohol toxicity, occurs due to the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period. Alcohol poisoning is not something similar to the hangover after a party. It is, in fact, a severe condition. It can occur with the consumption of any type of alcohol like beer, brandy, wine, rum, etc. The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol present in your bloodstream. After you take alcohol, the stomach digests the alcohol consumed and absorbs it, thus raising its level in blood. Since alcohol is a depressant, the increased alcohol level in the blood decreases vital body functions like temperature, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. With increased levels of alcohol, it becomes difficult for the liver to remove all the toxins.

How Is Alcohol Poisoning Measured?

Blood alcohol content (BAC) measures the amount of alcohol in the blood. It is usually expressed in percentage.

The following are the different levels of BAC and their corresponding effects on the human body:

  • Less Than 0.5 % - Speaking and remembering things becomes difficult, actions become uncoordinated, and the person feels a little dizzy. It is a mild form of impairment.

  • Between 0.06 and 0.15 % - In this level, there is an increased level of impairment compared to the previous level. Here, in addition to the worsening of the effects of mild impairment, there is an impact on driving skills.

  • Between 0.16 and 0.30 % - It is marked by exacerbation of the prior levels. Impairment of decision-making and judging abilities, blackouts, and vomiting are the characteristics of this level.

  • Between 0.31 and 0.45 % - This level of BAC is a life-threatening condition, from which there is an increased risk of death due to slowing down of vital body functions.

Different Forms of Alcohol-

Ethyl alcohol is the most common form of alcohol in several alcoholic beverages, extracts used for cooking, medications, mouthwashes, and household products. Less common forms of alcohol are isopropyl alcohol, methanol, and ethylene glycol. Cleaning products, rubbing alcohol, and lotions contain isopropyl alcohol, and ethylene glycol is found in solvents, antifreeze, and paints.

What Causes Alcohol Toxicity?

An important cause of alcohol toxicity is drinking large amounts of alcohol in a shorter period. The body quickly absorbs alcohol, i.e., it takes less time for the stomach to digest alcohol, which is comparatively faster than other nutrient absorption. Something which has to be noted with alcohol consumption is alcohol toxicity can occur even after the person becomes unconscious. This is because the body continues releasing the consumed alcohol into the bloodstream, thus increasing the levels of alcohol in the blood and producing toxicity. Alcohol toxicity due to other forms of alcohol can occur due to ingestion of household products or other products containing alcohol.

How Much Alcohol Causes Alcohol Toxicity?

According to the experts, a standard drink should contain only 0.6 % of pure alcohol. The following table shows the different forms of alcohol, their respective alcohol content, and the number of ounces of each type that contain 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol:

alcohol toxicity

If men drink five or more alcoholic drinks in two hours, alcohol poisoning can occur, which is four or more in the case of women.

What Increases the Risk of Developing Alcohol Toxicity?

The following risk factors increase the chances of developing alcohol toxicity:

  • Certain health conditions.

  • Not taking food.

  • The increased alcohol content in the drinks.

  • Occasional drinkers.

  • Increased rate and amount of alcohol intake.

  • Thin body built.

  • Drinking alcohol together with other drugs.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

The following are the common symptoms associated with alcohol toxicity:

  • The skin has a cold, clammy, and bluish appearance, more evident in the lips and fingernails.

  • Hypothermia or reduced body temperature.

  • Difficulty in walking.

  • Lack of coordination.

  • Bladder and bowel incontinence.

  • Confusion.

  • Lack of consciousness.

  • Lethargic response.

  • Heart rate, pulse, and breathing become irregular.

  • Vomiting.

  • Choking.

  • Seizures.

  • The intense odor of alcohol.

Tests to Diagnose the Presence of Alcohol in the Body:

  • Breathalyzer: In this test, the patient is asked to blow air into the device, which detects the amount of BAC. The breath contains alcohol because the alcohol that has been consumed enters the lungs through the bloodstream. Evaporation of alcohol occurs in the lungs, as a result of which there is breathing out of alcohol.

  • Blood Test: This test confers the most accurate result when taken within six to twelve hours of the last drink consumed. Blood is drawn, which is evaluated for the amount of BAC.

What Is the Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning?

Supportive care is the preferred treatment for alcohol toxicity. This is done until the absolute alcohol is processed and eliminated from the body. The following medical treatment helps in alcohol poisoning:

  • Intravenous Fluids: In order to prevent dehydration and increase the level of blood sugar, intravenous fluids are administered.

  • Stomach Pumping: The toxins present in the stomach are removed by pumping them out with the help of a tube.

  • Oxygen: Oxygen is given to the patients with the help of a nasal cannula, which is a flexible tube attached to the nose. A small tube is inserted into the windpipe to enable breathing when breathing difficulty occurs.

  • Dialysis: When kidneys cannot remove the alcohol present, the blood is filtered by the process of dialysis.

At-Home Treatment:

There is no actual at-home remedy that can help detoxify the alcohol consumed. Medical treatment should be sought as soon as possible. Until medical help arrives, the following should be carried out to not to worsen the existing condition:

  • To prevent choking or vomiting, the person should be made to lie on their side. If conscious, encourage the person to do it; else, turn the person gently.

  • Drinking water should be encouraged. However, it should be done only in conscious patients who can swallow.

  • Do not leave the patient unattended till medical help arrives.

Complications of Alcohol Poisoning:

  • Amnesia.

  • Hypoglycemia or lowered blood sugar level.

  • Hypothermia.

  • Irregular or cessation of the heartbeat.

  • Unconsciousness.

  • Profuse vomiting and dehydration.

  • Seizures due to hypoglycemia, vomiting, etc.

  • Permanent damage to the brain.

  • Death.

What Should I Not Do to Detoxify the Alcohol?

The following are a few misconceptions about alcohol poisoning, which should not be followed:

  • Putting the person to sleep.

  • Take a cold shower.

  • Drinking caffeine (black coffee).

  • Having a walk.

These measures do not help with alcohol detoxification and increase the chance of complications.

Steps to Prevent Alcohol Poisoning:

  1. Drink an adequate amount of water with every drink.

  2. Do not consume alcohol when taking prescription drugs.

  3. Do not take alcohol whose contents are not precise.

  4. Do not drink alcohol on an empty stomach.

  5. Do not binge drink and always drink in moderation.


Drinking alcohol, as a whole, should be avoided. Do not take up alcohol if you have not tried it yet because alcohol has its own side effects even when taken in moderate amounts for an extended period. To avoid alcohol poisoning, always stay within recommended limits and do not go overboard. When you are near an alcoholic, try to follow the at-home measures to prevent complications.

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Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)


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