How Much Alcohol Can Kill You? It Depends
Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., R.N., CRNA — Written by Adam England May 6, 2021
May 11, 2021
It’s tricky to know just how much alcohol can kill you. It might not be something you tend to think about when you’re relaxing with a few drinks and a few friends.
That said, it’s worth knowing your body’s limits and what to look for if alcohol poisoning is a worry.
However, there’s no straight answer to the question of how much alcohol can kill you. Everything from your age to what you ate earlier in the day can have an impact.
Why there’s no straight answer
The effects of alcohol are felt a little differently from person to person as a number of factors influence the amount of alcohol each person can withstand.
Your age, weight, and sex assigned at birth are major factors, but they’re not the only ones.
Your body’s water composition is another factor, as is enzyme production and any medications you’re taking.
Meanwhile, the liver is able to process alcohol at a rate of about one standard drink an hour, so somebody who spaces out their drinks is likely to decrease their chances of dying from drinking alcohol.
With all these factors at play, it’s almost impossible to work out how much alcohol will kill you.
Is there a lethal BAC?
Generally, once your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.40 percent or over, it’s dangerous territory. At this level, there’s a risk of coma or death.
If your BAC is between 0.08 and 0.40 percent, you’re likely to be very impaired and have symptoms like:
Keep in mind that in most places, 0.08 percent is the point at which you’re legally considered intoxicated.
How many drinks is too many?
As far as how many drinks you can have in one sitting, it’s important to understand what’s considered “a drink.”
One standard drink contains around 14 grams of pure alcohol. That roughly translates to:
- 12 ounces of beer (at 5 percent alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (at 12 percent alcohol)
- 5 ounces of distilled spirits
As a general rule, one standard drink will increase your BAC by 0.02 percent. So, while it might only take four drinks for you to be legally intoxicated, it’d take quite a bit more to kill you.
The average person would have to consume 25 standard drinks to reach 0.40 percent BAC. Bear in mind that the drink you’re holding might be larger than a standard drink.
For example, you might have more than 12 fluid ounces of beer in your glass, and it might be stronger than 5 percent, in which case it’d take fewer drinks to get you more drunk.
Recognizing an overdose
If you’re ever in doubt about whether someone’s had enough alcohol to have a medical emergency, check for the following signs of an alcohol overdose:
- pale, clammy, or blue skin if someone has lighter skin; people with darker skin might look ashen or washed out
- slow heart rate
- low body temperature
- slow or irregular breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute or 10 or more seconds between breaths)
- changes in mental state (like confusion or trouble speaking)
Someone experiencing an overdose won’t necessarily have all these symptoms, but if they’re breathing is slowed or you can’t wake them up, it’s time to call 911 and stay with them until help arrives.
Smart drinking tips
Even when it’s not fatal, alcohol can cause some unpleasant — and sometimes dangerous — symptoms.
When drinking, keep the following in mind to make things a bit safer:
- Make sure you eat.If you drink on an empty stomach, the alcohol will enter your bloodstream faster. Hence, it’ll take less alcohol to make you drunk faster.
- Drink plenty of water. For every standard drink you consume, it’s recommended to have at least one 16-ounce drink of water.
- Don’t go too fast. Your body can process roughly 1 unit of alcohol per hour, so by consuming one drink per hour at most, you’re giving your body time to process the alcohol and keep your BAC from getting too high.
- Give the drinking games a pass.When taking part in drinking games, it can be easy to consume more alcohol in a shorter time period, so you may want to sit them out.
- Know your limits. As we explained above, there’s no specific amount of alcohol that’ll be fatal for everyone, so be aware of your limits and know what you can handle.
- Don’t mix with other substances.Mixing alcohol with caffeine can hide the depressant effects of alcohol, making you drink more than you might otherwise. Combining alcohol with other drugs can also have adverse effects.
The bottom line
Everybody has different limits, and what’s fatal to one person might not be for another. However, there are ways to prevent yourself from getting into a position where your life might be at risk.
Know your limits and what your body can tolerate. You don’t need to worry about keeping up with friends — just focus on yourself.