Alcohol in the form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is found in alcoholic beverages, mouthwash, cooking extracts, some medications and certain household products. Ethyl alcohol poisoning generally results from drinking too many alcoholic beverages, especially in a short period of time.
Other forms of alcohol — including isopropyl alcohol (found in rubbing alcohol, lotions and some cleaning products) and methanol or ethylene glycol (a common ingredient in antifreeze, paints and solvents) — can cause another type of toxic poisoning that requires emergency treatment.
A major cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking — a pattern of heavy drinking when a male rapidly consumes five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours, or a female downs at least four drinks within two hours. An alcohol binge can occur over hours or last up to several days.
You can consume a fatal dose before you pass out. Even when you're unconscious or you've stopped drinking, alcohol continues to be released from your stomach and intestines into your bloodstream, and the level of alcohol in your body continues to rise.
How much is too much?
Unlike food, which can take hours to digest, alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body — long before most other nutrients. And it takes a lot more time for your body to get rid of the alcohol you've consumed.
Most alcohol is processed by your liver, and in general, it takes about one hour for your liver to process (metabolize) the alcohol in one drink.
One drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
- 8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 milliliters) of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
- 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)
Mixed drinks may contain more than one serving of alcohol and take even longer to metabolize.
Jul. 23, 2013
- Vacca VM, et al. Alcohol poisoning. Nursing. 2013;43:14.
- Tonisson M, et al. Acute alcohol intoxication characteristics in children. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2013;48:390.
- Langhan ML. Acute alcohol intoxication in adolescents: Frequency of respiratory depression. Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2013;44:1063.
- Van Zanten E, et al. Gender, age and educational level attribute to blood alcohol concentration in hospitalized intoxicated adolescents: A cohort study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. In press. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- Alcohol. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/special_subjects/drug_use_and_dependence/alcohol.html. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- Alcohol. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/alcohol.html. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- Alcohol overdose: The dangers of drinking too much. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholOverdoseFactsheet/Overdosefact.htm. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- A word about alcohol poisoning. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-poisoning. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- Cowan E, et al. Ethanol intoxication in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- Baum CR. Ethanol intoxication in children: Epidemiology, estimation of toxicity and toxic effects. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed June 18, 2013.
- Loukianova LL (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. July 8, 2013.
- Hall-Flavin DK (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. July 10, 2013.