Alcohol poisoning — when a person’s blood alcohol level gets so high that necessary life functions begin to fail — is a preventable, yet highly fatal condition.1 Around six times every day, someone in the U.S. dies of alcohol poisoning after drinking too much in a single binge.2 Over three-fourths of those deaths are men, and about the same percentage are people age 35 to 64.
Race also plays a part. The greatest number of deaths occurs among whites, but rates are highest among American Indians and native Alaskans. Geography factors in, too. The state with the highest alcohol poisoning death rate, 46.5 per million, is Alaska. Meanwhile, Alabama has the lowest rate at 5.3 per million.
How Alcohol Poisoning Happens
Alcohol poisoning is often the result of binge drinking, but whether it fits the official criteria for a binge or not, alcohol poisoning is always the result of consuming a very large amount of alcohol in a very short amount of time. And with each drink, the risk of injury or death rises.
In alcohol poisoning, the brain begins to simply shut down—often leading to death. Alcohol levels in the blood are so high that the brain areas controlling breathing, heart rate and temperature stop functioning. Warning signs include vomiting, confusion, trouble breathing, difficulty remaining conscious, a slow heart rate and clammy skin.1
Most alcohol poisoning victims never receive medical attention because they often appear to be simply intoxicated.Those around them are often also drinking with decreased ability to judge when someone is in serious trouble. And since underage drinking frequently plays a role, help may be delayed for fear of consequence.
How Much Is Too Much?
It’s difficult to determine how much alcohol is life-threatening for an individual. Alcohol affects men and women differently, and size, weight and other factors contribute to determine the exact amount of alcohol that puts someone in danger.
The legal limit for driving in all states is a blood concentration of .08 percent, but those with alcohol poisoning can have blood alcohol levels that are as high as six or eight times the legal limit.3 Others can show signs of alcohol overdose when they are just a little over the legal limit.
Despite what we may assume, alcoholism only plays a role in less than one-third of alcohol poisoning deaths.2 In fact, most binge drinkers are not alcoholics. The risk is the same no matter how frequently one drinks—someone can die of alcohol poisoning the first time they ever drink if enough alcohol is consumed.
Defining Binge Drinking
Binge drinking is equivalent to four or more drinks in about two hours for women and five or more drinks in two hours for men. However, many who binge ingest much more.The following details more info about binge drinking:
- One in six U.S. adults binge drinks four times a month.
- Men binge drink almost twice as much as women.
- People earning over $75,000 have a higher rate of binge drinking.
- For those under 21 who drink, binge drinking is very common.4
So how do we begin to lower these numbers? Education and awareness are a good start. Recognizing the dangers associated with binge drinking—injuries, violence, STDs, chronic disease, alcoholism, cancer and alcohol poisoning—may help some make wiser decisions. It is important for those who are informed to speak up and help others choose to drink responsibly or to abstain as well.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder, call us today. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at our toll-free helpline and can provide information on treatment programs, help with insurance and answer questions about the treatment process. Please call now.
1 “Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. October 2015.
2 “Vital Signs: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths — United States, 2010–2012.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 9 January 2015.
3 “DUI & DWI.” DMV.org, Accessed 24 January 2018.
4 “Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7 June 2017.