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Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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Almost every who drinks alcohol, whether socially or heavily, has experienced a hangover at some point in their lives. By comparison, only a handful of people underwent alcohol poisoning. While the two conditions are poles apart in terms of severity and potential side effects, it is common to mix them due to their closely resembling symptoms. However, learning to identify them separately is crucial since the outcomes of one of these conditions are much more severe than the other. Alcohol poisoning, if left untreated, is so risky that it can even cause death. On the other hand, alcohol intoxication or being drunk is merely a phase that passes within 24 hours. 

This article will help you understand the difference between drunk and alcohol poisoning in terms of symptoms and treatment. 

Recognising the symptoms of alcohol in time is so vital that it can potentially save someone’s life. If you suspect someone around you has consumed alcohol to the point of poisoning, examine their skin, fingers, and lips and try waking them up if they are unconscious. If the attempts to wake them up fail or if you notice a bluish hue on their skin, the situation can be dire and may turn fatal if immediate medical help is not sought. 

Some other symptoms of alcohol poisoning include

  • Mild to extreme signs of dehydration
  • A staggering, precarious gait
  • Severe confusion
  • Shallow breathing or experiencing prolonged pauses in breathing
  • Excessive vomiting after drinking alcohol which becomes persistent
  • Chills
  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Seizures
  • Increased heart rate
  • Losing consciousness
  • Coma

If someone around you displays all of these symptoms, there is a good chance they suffer from alcohol poisoning. 

In such a situation, acting quickly and calling for help is the first and the most critical step. Place the victim in an upright position or on one side to prevent them from swallowing their own vomit and choking on it. Do not leave the person unattended unless help arrives. If it takes too long for the ambulance to reach the scene, escort the victim to the nearest medical facility immediately.

As you wait for medical help to arrive:

  • Try to keep the person awake for as long as possible. Provide them with water and continue to do so even if they vomit it out. This prevents them from getting dehydrated as it will only worsen the symptoms. In the meantime, ask them about how much alcohol they had consumed, the type of alcohol, and the total duration of their drinking session.
  • Avoid giving them coffee, food, or any medication. Do not try to put them in a cold shower, as it may trigger a shock or make them lose consciousness.  
  • Be prepared to provide whatever information you can to the first responders, including the type and quantity of alcohol the person drank, whether they took any other drugs and other health information you know. Tell them if the person has any allergies to medicine or any chronic health illness. 
  • Do not leave an intoxicated individual alone as they are at a high risk of injuring themselves from choking or falling. 

Compared to alcohol intoxication, alcohol poisoning requires proper medical intervention in a hospital setting. A treatment plan to manage this issue includes

IV fluids

Once a victim arrives at a hospital, a medical professional may start giving them fluids through the veins to replenish the water and minerals lost due to persistent vomiting. 


Alcohol poisoning can often cause irregular or disrupted breathing, and the administration of alcohol can correct it.

Blood pressure medication

Medication to correct any dips in blood pressure due to high levels of alcohol may also be given.

Stomach pumping

This process involves the insertion of a tube to remove undigested alcohol from the stomach. 

Blood filtration

Also known as hemodialysis, blood filtration involves using a dialysis machine to remove alcohol and its byproducts from the body to resolve poisoning symptoms. 

Anti-seizure medication

This medication is provided to those who develop fits secondary to alcohol poisoning.

While you can safely return to your home when you are simply drunk or having a. hangover and sleep on it, the treatment for alcohol poisoning requires you to stay in a hospital. Depending on the individual health and severity of the symptoms, it may take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours for a person to partially recover from the effects of alcohol poisoning. However, the exact time may vary based on their metabolic rate, blood alcohol content (BAC), and other factors.

Once the dangerous symptoms subside, many continue to experience minor symptoms for a day or two. Some of them may also feel the effects similar to that of a hangover the following day. 

As a part of treatment, a healthcare provider may also suggest seeking treatment for alcohol use or refer them to a mental health professional. These mental health professionals can assist with medical detoxifications and help individuals overcome their alcohol addiction through therapy and medications. 

To be clear, the symptoms of drunkenness and a hangover can sometimes result from mild alcohol poisoning. When the body over-imbibes this beverage, it can lead to symptoms like increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and vomiting. These symptoms usually begin the same night and may continue till the following morning as the body continues to kick out alcohol from the system. 

While both drunkenness and alcohol poisoning result from inflammation, dehydration, and expansion of blood vessels, they have some unique differences. Though generally less severe, drunkenness and hangovers can be highly unpleasant. With nausea and dehydration headaches as its two primary symptoms, it can make anyone woozy and wobbly. The symptoms may range from mildly uncomfortable to severe, lasting for days. These symptoms may include

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Sensitivity to bright light or loud noise 
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Vomiting, nausea or stomach pain
  • Chills
  • Shakiness or jitteriness
  • Light-headedness
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or throat
  • Increased irritability
  • Anxiety and depression

The symptoms usually begin acutely after having alcohol but are not uncomfortable enough to seek professional help at the hospital. Moreover, drunkenness rarely causes breathing difficulties and unconsciousness though some who have had too much may pass out for a short time. The symptoms usually subside with a good night’s sleep and lots of water the following day.

While most symptoms of drunkenness and hangovers run their course before subsiding, some treatment options can help make the process more comfortable. Even though there is no such thing as a quick fix and only time can relieve this agonising feeling of drinking too much alcohol.

The most obvious tip to prevent getting too drunk is to drink moderately or not at all where possible. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water during drinking can also slow down the rate at which alcohol intoxicates you. Remember to eat well before going out for drinks and continue to have light snacks throughout to reduce the absorption of alcohol from the digestive system. 

If you still end up feeling drunk after a round of drinks, the following tips can help you get over this feeling to a certain degree:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications, like ibuprofen
  • Maintaining proper nutrition with a sufficient amount of carbohydrates and fresh fruits
  • Consuming water or sports drinks with electrolytes and sugar
  • Going to bed early to get sufficient rest

If the muscle pain or stomach cramps due to alcohol become unbearable and you have to take a painkiller, avoid consuming acetaminophen. Mixing this drug with alcohol can severely damage the liver, sometimes leading to prolonged and potentially irreversible side effects. This is important to remember, especially right after a drinking session, as that’s when the alcohol levels are the highest in the bloodstream. 

Ultimately, it just takes the body some time to flush out alcohol to get out of the feeling of being drunk. Just keep an eye out for any severe symptoms, like breathing difficulties and extreme chills, to ensure that you do not develop alcohol poisoning.  

The only sure way to avoid drunkenness or alcohol poisoning is to abstain from drinking altogether. If that’s not possible, pay close attention to how much alcohol you consume in every session and do not be afraid to speak up if you find someone else drinking to dangerously high levels. The human body is amazing and highly resilient to most problems. But when the symptoms of drunkenness or alcohol poisoning take over, it is a sign to let you know that drinking too excessively is hurting it and must be avoided. For many, the first episode of drunkenness and hangover is enough to stop going overboard the next time. Yet, for others, it serves as a mild inconvenience that does not deter them from drinking heavily in the future. 

Whatever category you belong to, remember to be cautious about your drinking habits. Besides inducing hangovers or alcohol poisoning, drinking too excessively or heavily can also make you dependent on alcohol, a condition called alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD can easily destroy careers and break relationships while deteriorating physical health and almost always requires professional addiction treatment to overcome it. 

If you or a loved one has frequently been getting drunk or has survived alcohol poisoning, alcohol addiction might be the reason. Get in touch with an addiction rehab today to get help today. 



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