Should you let a drunk person sleep it off?

Letting a drunk person “sleep it off” is a common response when someone has had too much to drink. However, this approach can be dangerous in some situations. Here is a closer look at whether you should let an intoxicated person sleep it off or seek medical attention.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol?

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It slows down the activity of the brain and spinal cord. The more alcohol consumed, the more impaired brain function becomes. As blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, people become increasingly intoxicated, experiencing:

  • – Relaxation
  • – Lowered inhibitions
  • – Impaired judgment
  • – Slurred speech
  • – Motor impairment
  • – Memory problems
  • – Difficulty concentrating
  • – Vomiting
  • – Loss of consciousness

BAC continues rising for 30-90 minutes after the last drink. After peaking, it begins falling as alcohol is eliminated from the body. The liver metabolizes alcohol at a fixed rate. Nothing can speed up this process. On average, the liver can process one standard drink per hour. However, alcohol absorption and elimination rates vary between individuals based on factors like:

  • – Weight
  • – Gender
  • – Medications
  • – Food intake

When BAC climbs too high, areas of the brain controlling vital functions like breathing, heart rate, and temperature regulation are sedated. This increases the risk of life-threatening alcohol poisoning.

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone consumes a dangerous amount of alcohol. BAC continues rising long after they stop drinking. As it climbs, more parts of the brain controlling involuntary functions become impaired.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • – Confusion
  • – Vomiting
  • – Seizures
  • – Slow breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute)
  • – Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • – Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • – Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • – Passing out (unconsciousness) and can’t be awakened

Without treatment, alcohol poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage or death. Breathing can slow or stop completely, resulting in respiratory arrest. Vomiting while unconscious raises the risk of pulmonary aspiration. Choking on vomit can cause fatal airway obstruction.

What factors increase the risk of alcohol poisoning?

Certain factors raise the risk of alcohol poisoning:

  • Binge drinking – Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period increases BAC faster than the liver can metabolize alcohol.
  • Drinking on an empty stomach – Without food, alcohol is absorbed more rapidly into the bloodstream.
  • Medications – Some medications, like sedatives, interact with alcohol increasing impairment.
  • Medical conditions – Health problems affecting liver function slow alcohol metabolism.
  • Tolerance – Habitual heavy drinkers may have higher tolerance and not show signs of intoxication even with high BACs.
  • Body size – Alcohol has more of an effect on people who weigh less as it is distributed throughout less body mass and water.

At what point should you seek medical help?

Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency. Call 911 or emergency services if someone exhibits any of the following:

  • – Inability to wake the person up
  • – No response to pinching the skin
  • – Slow, irregular, or no breathing
  • – Low body temperature
  • – Bluish skin color or paleness
  • – Vomiting while passed out
  • – Seizures

Don’t wait for all symptoms to be present. Call for help at the earliest sign of alcohol poisoning. While waiting for paramedics, turn the person on their side to prevent choking on vomit. Keep them warm with blankets to prevent hypothermia. Try to keep them awake and alert if possible.

Is letting a drunk person “sleep it off” ever a good idea?

Letting someone “sleep off” the effects of alcohol may seem harmless. However, it can be deadly if the person is suffering from alcohol poisoning. CNS depression worsens as alcohol continues circulating at high levels. While unconscious, vomiting or respiratory arrest can occur. Without aid, the person may aspirate, develop hypothermia, or stop breathing.

“Sleeping it off” is only appropriate if the person has consumed only mild to moderate amounts of alcohol. They should be awakened periodically to check their condition. Ensure they are breathing properly and not showing signs of alcohol poisoning. If concerned, stay with the person or seek medical help to be safe.

When is it relatively safe to let a drunk person sleep?

Letting an intoxicated person sleep may be safe if:

  • They only consumed a mild to moderate amount of alcohol (not in binge quantities).
  • They are not showing any signs of alcohol poisoning and can be awakened.
  • No mixing drugs and alcohol occurred.
  • No head injury or history of seizures exists.
  • Someone can monitor them regularly to check breathing, skin color, temperature, and alertness.

Additionally, the person should be placed on their side in the recovery position. This avoids airway obstruction if vomiting occurs. They should be in a safe environment and not left unattended for long periods.

What position should a drunk person be placed in to sleep?

Laying an intoxicated person on their side in the recovery position ensures an open airway if vomiting occurs. Follow these steps:

  1. Place the person on their side with the arm touching the ground extended out at shoulder level.
  2. Bend the upper knee and hip at a 90 degree angle.
  3. Tilt the head back to keep the airway open.
  4. Check that nothing is blocking the airway.
  5. Monitor breathing and alertness regularly.

Never place someone who is intoxicated on their back. Alcohol depresses the gag reflex. Vomit could block the airway without the person noticing while unconscious.

What are the risks of letting a drunk person sleep it off?

Potential risks of letting an intoxicated person “sleep it off” include:

  • Vomiting and aspiration – Alcohol impairs the gag reflex. Vomit can block airways without the person waking up.
  • Respiratory depression – Alcohol sedates the drive to breathe. Breathing slows, sometimes to a stop.
  • Hypothermia – Impaired temperature regulation leads to dangerous drops in body temperature.
  • Accidental injury – Disorientation raises risks of falls or other injury.
  • Alcohol poisoning – BAC continues rising after passing out, potentially to lethal levels.
  • Seizures – Alcohol withdrawal after heavy drinking can trigger seizures.

What should you do with a passed out drunk person?

If you encounter an intoxicated person who has passed out:

  1. Try to wake them up by calling their name and rubbing the center of their chest.
  2. Check their breathing. If breathing is irregular, slow, or has stopped, call 911.
  3. Roll them onto their side into the recovery position to keep the airway clear.
  4. Do not leave them alone. Monitor breathing, skin color, temperature, and consciousness.
  5. If there are no signs of alcohol poisoning, stay with the person until fully awake.
  6. After regaining consciousness, encourage them to drink water and seek medical care if concerned.

Passed out drunk people are at risk of choking on vomit, hypothermia, or respiratory failure. Don’t assume they just need to sleep it off. Stay with them and watch for signs of deteriorating condition requiring emergency medical treatment.

Can you tell how drunk someone is just by looking at them?

It is difficult to judge how drunk someone is just by observation. Outward signs of intoxication like slurred speech, confusion, and lack of coordination often underestimate someone’s true level of alcohol impairment.

In particular, long-time heavy drinkers may exhibit high tolerance. They can consume amounts of alcohol that cause life-threatening toxicity in others without appearing outwardly drunk.

Relying on the number of drinks consumed or subjective signs of intoxication cannot predict blood alcohol concentration. The only way to accurately gauge someone’s level of alcohol intoxication is by breath, blood, or urine testing.

How long does it take for drunkenness to wear off?

There is no set amount of time it takes for drunkenness to wear off. Alcohol impairment persists as long as blood alcohol concentration remains elevated. On average:

  • BAC returns to zero within 5-6 hours after having 1-2 drinks.
  • BAC returns to zero within 8-9 hours after having 3-4 drinks.
  • BAC returns to zero within 12 or more hours after 5 or more drinks.

However, many factors affect alcohol metabolism rate. Repeat drinking can maintain intoxication. After an episode of heavy drinking, next day hangover effects on coordination and cognition may linger after BAC reaches zero.

The only way to reliably tell when alcohol has cleared the system is to monitor BAC levels. Once BAC returns to 0%, alcohol is fully eliminated from the body.


Letting someone “sleep off” alcohol impairment often seems like the compassionate choice. However, severe intoxication is a medical crisis requiring emergency care. Alcohol continues depressing vital functions like breathing even after someone loses consciousness.

If any signs of alcohol poisoning are present, err on the side of caution and call 911. With moderate drinking, recovery positioning and monitoring for complications may allow sleeping off milder intoxication. Stay alert to deterioration indicating a need for medical intervention.

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