The Scary Truth About Teen Alcohol Poisoning

Facts About Teen Alcohol Poisoning

Teen alcohol poisoning is a real and frightening danger for college and high school students.

According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the most dangerous causes of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking. Because teenagers consume 90 percent of their alcohol during binge drinking, they are at greater risk of alcohol poisoning than many other members of the population.

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. Nationally, there are more than 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths each year, which is an average of six every day.

Furthermore, alcohol is a factor in the deaths of 4,358 young people under age 21 each year. These include 245 deaths annually from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning. Other fatalities are due to alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, homicides, and suicides.

A group of teens celebrating, unaware of the dangers of alcohol poisoning.

What Causes Alcohol Poisoning

The body absorbs alcohol much more quickly than food. It reaches our bloodstream faster, and the liver works to filter it out of our blood.

However, the liver can only process a limited amount of alcohol—approximately one drink of alcohol every hour. If a person consumes more than one standard drink within an hour, the liver can’t keep up with processing the toxins.

Even when someone stops drinking, there is a risk of alcohol poisoning as their body continues to absorb the alcohol they consumed. Blood alcohol level can continue to rise for up to 30 or 40 minutes after they stop drinking.

Therefore, the more teens drink, especially in a short period of time, the greater their risk of alcohol poisoning.

Teens, Binge Drinking, and Alcohol Poisoning

Binge drinking is the most common cause of alcohol poisoning, and it is very common among teens. According to the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 18 percent of high school students participates in binge drinking. Binge drinking is also very common among college students. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 37.9 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 report binge drinking in the past month.

In a national survey on teenage binge drinking, one in eight college students reported having 10 or more drinks in a row within a two-week period. Moreover, one in 25 reported having 15 or more drinks in a row at least once in those two weeks.

Statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention show that people between 12 and 20 years drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. In addition, more than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.

Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Alcohol Poisoning

Find out more about the risks of teen binge drinking.

What Constitutes Teen Binge Drinking?

The Centers for Disease Control define binge drinking as consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men.

Those amounts are smaller for younger people: three drinks for boys ages 9 to 13 and for girls ages 9 to 17.

One drink is defined as:

  • 12 ounces of beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces (of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces 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.

Most experts define a lethal dose of alcohol at about .4 percent, or about four times the current legal limit in most states. However, there are many cases in which death occurred from alcohol poisoning at much lower levels. For a 100-pound teenager drinking very quickly, it would require about 8 to 10 drinks in an hour to reach the lethal level. 

Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Alcohol Poisoning

It’s Not Just Drinking That Can Cause Alcohol Poisoning 

As well as alcoholic drinks, teens may consume other forms of alcohol that can cause toxic poisoning.

  • Mouthwash, cooking extracts, some medications and certain household products contain ethanol, or ethyl alcohol.
  • Rubbing alcohol, lotions, and some cleaning products contain isopropyl alcohol.
  • Antifreeze, paints and solvents methanol or ethylene glycol

Consumption of any of these substances can cause poisoning that requires emergency treatment.

Read “How Teens Can Get Drunk Without Alcoholic Beverages.”

 Signs and Risk Factors of Alcohol Poisoning

According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol poisoning signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
  • Irregular breathing (a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)
  • Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Passing out (unconsciousness) and can’t be awakened.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Poisoning

A number of factors can increase a teen’s risk of alcohol poisoning. These include

  • Size and weight
  • Overall health
  • Having an empty stomach
  • Combining alcohol with other drugs
  • The percentage of alcohol in the drinks
  • How quickly the alcohol is consumed
  • Personal tolerance level.

Deadly Consequences of Alcohol Poisoning 

Alcohol poisoning can result in severe and even deadly consequences and complications. These include the following:

  • Choking: Alcohol may cause vomiting. Furthermore, drinking depresses the gag reflex. Therefore, this increases the risk of choking on vomit if a teen is unconscious.
  • Interruption of breathing: Asphyxiation can occur if a teen accidentally inhales vomit into their lungs.
  • Dehydration: Vomiting can result in severe dehydration. Consequently, this leads to dangerously low blood pressure and accelerated heart rate.
  • Seizures: If a teen’s blood sugar level drops low enough, seizures may result.
  • Hypothermia: Alcohol causes the blood vessels to expand, resulting in more rapid heat loss from the surface of your skin. Thus, alcohol poisoning can result in the body temperature dropping so low that it leads to symptoms of hypothermia, including failure of the cardiac and respiratory system.
  • Irregular heartbeat: Alcohol poisoning can cause the heart to beat irregularly or even stop.
  • Brain damage: Heavy drinking may cause irreversible brain damage.
  • Death: Any of the issues listed above can lead to death.

How to Help a Teen with Alcohol Poisoning

If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning, seek medical care by calling 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

What to Do While Waiting for Help

  • Try to keep them sitting up. If they have to lie down, make sure to turn their head to the side to help prevent choking.
  • Keep them awake if at all possible.
  • If they will take it, give them water to drink.
  • Get as much information as you can about how much and what they have been drinking to tell hospital or emergency personnel.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t leave the person alone. Someone with alcohol poisoning is in danger of choking on their vomit.
  • Never try to make the person vomit as this could also cause choking.
  • Do not assume the person will sleep off alcohol poisoning. It is possible for them lose consciousness while asleep.
  • Offering them coffee or caffeine will not counteract the effects of alcohol poisoning.
  • A cold shower is not a good idea, as the shock of cold can cause a loss of consciousness,
  • Don’t encourage them to walk it off. Walking it off does not increase the speed at which alcohol leaves the body.

Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Alcohol Poisoning

 Treatment for Alcohol Poisoning

Once medical professionals take charge, they may perform a number of treatments. Often, this involves supportive care while the body rids itself of the alcohol toxins. This typically includes the following:

  • Careful monitoring of the person to prevent breathing or choking problems
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Fluids given through intravenously to prevent dehydration
  • Giving vitamins and/or glucose to replenish nutrients
  • Inserting a tube into their windpipe to ease breathing difficulties
  • Pumping the stomach using a tube that goes down their mouth or nose
  • Hemodialysis to remove waste and toxins from the system. This is typically administered when someone has accidentally consumed methanol or isopropyl alcohol.

Three Ways to Prevent Teen Alcohol Poisoning

  1. Communicate with teens. Parents need to talk to teenagers about the dangers of alcohol, including binge drinking and alcohol poisoning. Research shows that children whose parents communicate their expectations around alcohol use are less likely to start drinking.
  2. Don’t let children or teens have access to alcohol or products that contain alcohol. In one survey, two out of three teens said it was easy to get alcohol from their homes without parents knowing about it. Parents may want to consider locking up alcoholic beverages or not keeping alcohol in the house. To protect small children, alcohol-containing products, including cosmetics, mouthwashes and medications, should be stored out of their reach or in bathroom or kitchen cabinets with childproof latches.
  3. Seek help if you know your teen has been drinking. Professional care by medical and mental health experts can help teens to address the root causes of alcohol use. Therefore, it can save teens’ lives.

Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Alcohol Poisoning


Mayo Clinic

Medical News Today

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Parent Action on Drugs

Prevention Science: July 2016, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 615–625.