Updated 07 July 2014

Death in a bottle

Drunken behaviour is often deemed to be funny. But there is nothing funny about excessive drinking which may result in alcohol poisoning, and even lead to death.


Drunken behaviour is often deemed to be funny. But there is nothing funny about excessive drinking which may result in alcohol poisoning, and even lead to death.

What happens to your body when you get 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 excessive alcohol to vomit since alcohol is an irritant to the stomach. There is then the danger of choking on vomit, which could cause death by asphyxiation in a person who is not conscious because of intoxication.

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.
  • Vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute).
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin colour, paleness.

What you should do if you suspect 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 for help. Don't try to guess the level of drunkenness.

Risks of alcohol poisoning?

  • Victim chokes on his or her own vomit.
  • Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
  • Heart beats irregularly or stops.
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  • Hypoglycaemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures.
  • Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.
  • 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.

Common myths about sobering up include drinking black coffee, taking a cold bath or shower, sleeping it off, or walking it off. But these are just myths, and they don't work.

The only thing that reverses the effects of alcohol is time-something you may not have if you are suffering from alcohol poisoning. And many different factors affect the level of intoxication of an individual, so it's difficult to gauge exactly how much is too much.

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, you cared enough to help. Always be safe, not sorry.

(Thania Ghopal, May 2009)


Read more:
Physical and psychological effects of alcohol
The six stages of drunkenness


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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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