Many of us have experienced some of the ill effects of drinking too much. Intoxication can lead to nausea and sickness, poor decision-making and a lack of coordination that can in turn lead to mishaps and accidents.
Embarrassing stories from the night before and hangovers from the morning after are all part of the overall drinking culture and are often seen as a rite of passage and a bit of harmless fun. Drinking too much can have serious consequences, however.
In 2019/20 there were nearly a million hospital admissions related to alcohol consumption in England alone. Many of these will be people with serious conditions including liver disease and various types of cancers associated with long-term drinking habits, but there are also many cases of accidents, violence, illness and alcohol poisoning related to short-term binge drinking.
But exactly what is alcohol poisoning and how long does alcohol poisoning last?
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Humans have been drinking alcohol for many thousands of years. Archaeologists believe they have found a prehistoric brewery dating back 13,000 years and cultures throughout history have sought out the intoxicating effects of alcohol. These can be pleasant at first, with effects including feelings of well-being and confidence, relaxation and lowered inhibitions.
With heavier drinking there are likely to be less positive effects, which can include nausea or vomiting, slurred speech and impaired thinking, slowed reactions and impaired coordination. Alcohol also acts as a depressant. As well as slowed breathing and heart rate it can cause mood swings, depressive thoughts, anxiety and aggression.
Alcohol poisoning is more severe than ‘regular’ drunkenness – even though any kind of alcohol intoxication can be dangerous. The NHS says that alcohol poisoning can occur when you drink alcohol quicker than your body can process it. It can make you seriously ill and can even prove fatal.
Understanding Alcohol Poisoning
Drinking alcohol affects a number of different areas of the brain and body, including having a depressive effect on the central nervous system. As you drink – and often for some time after – the alcohol is metabolised or eliminated from the body by various means, including the liver.
If you drink alcohol faster than you can process it, typically in a binge-drinking session, it can build up and cause serious problems. You will typically metabolise one standard drink (a small glass of wine or half a beer) in an hour. An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions such as breathing, heart rate and temperature control start to shut down.
How Long Do Alcohol Poisoning Effects Last?
So how long do alcohol poisoning effects last? Alcohol poisoning duration can vary depending on a number of factors – including the amount of alcohol consumed and how quickly, both of which will affect the severity of the alcohol poisoning. Your age, sex, general health and tolerance to alcohol may also play a part.
Alcohol poisoning symptoms will typically start to appear while you are drinking or shortly after and may continue for 24 to 48 hours. In some cases, they may last longer and may require treatment in hospital.
Symptoms and Their Duration
There are a number of possible symptoms of alcohol poisoning, some of which can overlap with the signs of being drunk. Some people may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Slurred words or inability to speak
- Impaired coordination, including being unable to stand, walk, or pick things up
- Nausea and vomiting
- Wetting or soiling yourself
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Having a seizure or fit
- Loss of consciousness
Some of the symptoms may start to improve quickly, especially if you receive treatment for alcohol poisoning.
Recovery from alcohol poisoning can take a long time though, especially if you have serious damage to your liver, heart or other organs. In the hospital, you will typically be given fluids through a drip and may be given help to breathe until the effects of the alcohol start to lessen. This could take a number of hours – again according to how much alcohol you have consumed and other factors.
Preventing Alcohol Poisoning
The best way of preventing alcohol poisoning is to limit the amount of alcohol you drink, especially in a single session. It can help to try and set a limit on how much you will drink beforehand – either by counting the number of drinks you have or limiting the amount you spend (if drinking out).
Alternating alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or water can reduce the amount of alcohol you drink overall, as well as help prevent dehydration – a key element of many hangovers. Eating before or while you are drinking can also slow the rate at which you absorb alcohol and speed up the rate at which you process it. This can help prevent you from feeling too drunk too quickly and slow the rate at which alcohol builds up in your bloodstream.
If you think you are suffering from alcohol poisoning and are capable of doing so, you should call 999 immediately. The same thing applies if you believe someone else has alcohol poisoning. The NHS says you should stay with them, keep them warm and sit them up or put them in the recovery position.
You should not let them have any more alcohol and, contrary to some beliefs, you should not give them caffeine, put them in a cold shower or try to make them sick.
Help for Alcohol Issues
Any type of alcohol misuse can be dangerous but the risks from alcohol poisoning can be extremely serious. If you routinely drink too much or struggle to limit how much alcohol you consume during a drinking session, you could be putting yourself at risk of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol addiction and substance abuse can be harmful to your health and general wellbeing, so seeking treatment as soon as possible is the best way to recover.