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Drinking Rubbing Alcohol: Can You Do It Safely?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic disease that involves changes affecting the brain as a result of drinking a lot of alcohol. Someone who struggles with AUD experiences a negative emotional state, physical illness, depression, and intense cravings when they can’t drink. They may drink a lot to feel normal, although they also have to drink more alcohol over time to get effects that are similar to those experienced the first time they drank. 

For many people struggling with AUD, tolerance leads them to switch from “soft” alcohol like beer and wine to hard liquor, so that they can become intoxicated faster. In some cases, a high tolerance may cause the person to switch to other types of alcohol, including rubbing alcohol.

Rubbing alcohol is a highly concentrated form of alcohol that is designed for external applications, and it was never intended for internal use. It is used to clean surfaces and skin because it is an effective disinfectant. The substance is roughly 70 percent absolute or isopropyl alcohol; this is a different type of alcohol than beer, wine, and hard liquor, which are ethanol derived from fermenting carbohydrates in fruit or grain. Even large amounts of ethanol are dangerous to drink, but isopropyl alcohol is not intended for drinking at all. The chemical can cause rapid intoxication, lead to poisoning quickly, and severely damage the stomach and intestines.

The Risks of Rubbing Alcohol

Pure ethanol is often used as an industrial solvent, cleaner, or sometimes as a fuel. Isopropyl alcohol is a slightly bigger molecule than ethanol, but it has similar industrial applications. The 70 percent mix found in rubbing alcohol is a powerful disinfectant as well. These types of alcohol may have similarities to beer, wine, and hard liquor in chemical structure, but they are not safe to consume at all.

Rubbing alcohol can be toxic when inhaled or swallowed. Tiny amounts can be toxic to children, and even a little can be toxic to adults, too. When ingested, the initial effects of isopropyl alcohol are similar to hard liquor, although the side effects will happen much faster. Indications that someone has swallowed isopropyl alcohol may include: 

  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling and loss of motor control
  • Sedation, including passing out
  • Vomiting

When inhaled, rubbing alcohol may burn the back of the throat and lungs, which can cause inflammation, coughing, and headaches. It also increases the risk of lung infections. Too much rubbing alcohol on the skin can cause irritation and redness, like a rash, or it can even break the skin. Ingesting isopropyl alcohol can damage the stomach lining, intestines, liver, and kidneys.

Rubbing Alcohol Quickly Causes Alcohol Poisoning

There is no safe amount of rubbing alcohol, or other forms of absolute or isopropyl alcohol, that you can drink. These products are not intended for consumption.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists the permissible airborne exposure limit as 400 parts per million over an eight-hour work shift. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports a similar exposure limit of 400 ppm over a 10-hour work shift, and 500 ppm, which should not be exceeded during any 15-minute period of work. Airborne exposure of 2,000 ppm is immediately dangerous to health.

If you drink rubbing alcohol, accidentally or to get drunk, you are more likely to experience alcohol poisoning than experience any high. Extremely small amounts of isopropyl alcohol can be managed by the kidneys, which can remove 20 to 50 percent of the alcohol from your body; the rest is broken down into acetate and eliminated through the lungs and kidneys. However, this type of alcohol will cause much more damage to the liver than beer, wine, and hard liquor.

When isopropyl alcohol poisoning occurs, the main symptom is liver damage, but many other organs will be damaged as well. Peak intoxication and signs of poisoning will begin within 30 to 60 minutes after consumption.

Symptoms of isopropyl alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach pain
  • Low blood pressure, or hypotension
  • Low body temperature, or hypothermia
  • Rapid heartbeat or tachycardia
  • Vomiting and nausea, including vomiting blood
  • Diarrhea 
  • Other symptoms of gastroenteritis
  • Slowed breathing
  • Unresponsive reflexes
  • Throat pain or burning
  • Coma 

If you notice someone with alcohol poisoning, or you think you may have alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Proper medical attention is the only way to stop severe alcohol poisoning. Someone with untreated alcohol poisoning from a toxin as strong as isopropyl alcohol may die of heart failure, kidney failure, or stopped breathing.

At its most dangerous, too much rubbing alcohol can cause:

  • Internal bleeding.
  • Brain damage.
  • Oxygen deprivation from breathing changes.
  • Kidney failure.

Swallowing or inhaling isopropyl alcohol at high levels not only causes acute problems, especially alcohol poisoning, but it also can lead to chronic health problems. Reproductive damage may occur, and the risk of cancer from consistent exposure over months or years increases. Damage from oxygen deprivation, liver damage, kidney damage, and gastrointestinal damage can last for a long time and require ongoing medical attention.

Treatment Starts With Hospitalization

It is not safe to recover from rubbing alcohol poisoning at home. Hospitalization involves several tests to determine the extent of the poisoning and any internal damage that has occurred. The individual’s vital signs will be monitored after lifesaving treatment is administered, and they may have to stay in the hospital for several hours or days. They may require dialysis or breathing support.

If a loved one drank isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol because they struggle with AUD, they will need professional help from evidence-based rehabilitation programs to address this disorder.

Sources

Alcohol Use Disorder. (2018). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

Rubbing Alcohol. (2018). ScienceDirect. from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/rubbing-alcohol

Rubbing Alcohol. (July 28, 2018). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rubbing%20alcohol

Good Question – What Is the Difference Between Alcohol, Ethanol, Denatured Alcohol, Rubbing Alcohol, Methanol and Isopropyl Alcohol? (April 23, 2010). How Stuff Works: Brain Stuff. from https://www.brainstuffshow.com/blogs/good-question-what-is-the-difference-between-alcohol-ethanol-denatured-alcohol-rubbing-alcohol-methanol-and-isopropyl-alcohol.htm

Rubbing Alcohol Only Looks Like Water. (2018). Poison Control, National Capital Poison Center. from https://www.poison.org/articles/2012-dec/rubbing-alcohol-only-looks-like-water

Right to Know: Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet. (April 2011). New Jersey Department of Health. from https://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1076.pdf

Isopropyl Alcohol Poisoning. (November 13, 2017). Healthline. from https://www.healthline.com/health/isopropyl-alcohol

Isopropanol. (January 19, 2012). ToxNet: Toxicology Data Network. from https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@[email protected]+116

Isopropanol Alcohol Poisoning. (October 8, 2017). Medline Plus. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002660.htm

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