Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms vs. Signs of Being Drunk

September 28, 2022

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol-induced deaths are rising. Provisional data from 2021 indicates that alcohol-related deaths (52,000) were up 34 percent from 2019 (39,000). Data also show a 26 percent increase in death from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, with 56,000 in 2021.

Alcoholism Concept Man Drunk Laying on the Table

Worldwide, there are 3 million deaths each year from the unhealthy use of alcohol, according to the World Health Organization. In deaths of people ages 20-39, alcohol contributes to approximately 13.5 percent of total deaths.

In moderation, alcohol is not problematic—you might have a glass of champagne at a wedding or a glass of beer at a sporting event. But if you’re wondering about alcohol poisoning symptoms vs. drunkenness, there are some things you should know.

Symptoms of Drunkenness vs. Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

Let’s say you observe someone who is quite intoxicated. Are you witnessing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, or is the person just really drunk? (Please note that “just drunk” doesn’t imply it’s OK. Being extremely drunk indicates they may need professional intervention for a substance use challenge.)

You’re probably familiar with the symptoms of drunkenness, if not from personal experience, then from the media. Signs that someone is drunk include:

  • Slurred or loud speech
  • Stumbling gait
  • Loss of balance
  • Drowsiness
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Reduced reaction time

Man portrait suffering stomach ache at home

Any of these indicate that it’s time to put down the alcohol and start rehydrating. Not following that advice can lead to alcohol poisoning. When someone drinks rapidly, that person can shoot right past the symptoms of drunkenness to the signs of alcohol poisoning. It’s time to call for emergency services if you observe:

  • Excessive vomiting
  • Seizure
  • Respiratory issues/slowed breathing
  • Change in heart rate
  • Extreme confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Cold sweats
  • Low body temperature
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Bluish tint to the skin, mainly around the lips and fingernails

Factors That Affect the Level of Intoxication

There’s no exact formula for identifying drunkenness vs. alcohol poisoning because numerous factors influence a person’s level of intoxication, such as:

  • Weight and size
  • Age
  • Tolerance
  • Gender
  • Rate of consumption
  • Medications taken
  • Stomach contents 
  • Health disorders
  • Overall health

Why Professionally-Assisted Detox Is Necessary

Alcohol poisoning is a severe condition that can lead to brain damage or death. If you suspect an alcohol overdose, do NOT try to help them walk it off, sleep it off, or make them drink coffee. Essential life functions and involuntary reflexes can cease due to alcohol poisoning.

Before detox can even begin, the overdosed person needs medical assistance, so call 911. They may need IV fluids, oxygen, and stomach pumping. If they’ve gotten to the point where the kidneys are shutting down, they may need dialysis.

Once the intoxicated person is stabilized, medically assisted detox and intensive in-patient treatment is the best route to sobriety.

What to Do While You Wait For Emergency Services

Again, you mustn’t leave the overdosed person alone. They’re likely disoriented and could wander off, leading to injury or worse. Stay with them and have them sit up, preferably on the ground or on a chair with sturdy arms so they can’t fall out of it. If they must lie down, keep them on their side in case they vomit. Do your very best to keep them awake until paramedics arrive.

Group of friends consoling their friend who is sitting drunk in a bar.

Learn More through Buena Vista Recovery

If you’re worried about a loved one, the best thing you can do is educate yourself. Learn about alcohol use disorder and addiction from the professionals at Buena Vista Recovery. You can also contact a treatment advisor online or call (800) 922-0095 anytime, day or night.

If you or a loved one have thoughts of self-harm, call the 988 suicide prevention hotline immediately. They are there to help.

Buena Vista Recovery works with most insurance plans, including but not limited to Aetna, Magellan, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Humana, and Cigna, among others. On rare occasions, if a plan is not included in our network, our clinical outreach director will assist you in finding a placement in your network. Find a partial list of providers here.