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What is Rubbing Alcohol?

Rubbing alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol, is widely used in industrial and home-cleaning products. It has potent antiseptic properties. It is an active ingredient in disinfectants, skin lotions, cosmetics, antifreeze, body rubs, nail polish removers, mouthwashes, and many other products. It is also the primary component in many hand sanitizers.

While the word alcohol is in its name, rubbing alcohol is different from the ethyl alcohol contained in your favorite alcoholic beverages. Rubbing alcohol is colorless and bitter-tasting. It is twice as toxic as ethanol and emits an odor that is similar to acetone.

You should never drink rubbing alcohol, use it on children, or use it near open flames.

Isopropyl alcohol is different than cetyl alcohol.

What Percentage Alcohol is in Rubbing Alcohol?

Isopropyl alcohol comes in various purity levels. It can reach an alcohol percentage as high as 99 percent. However, household rubbing alcohol may go as low as 60 percent. 

Most rubbing alcohol is a combination of 70 percent isopropyl alcohol and 30 percent water. Even though you may assume that high concentrations of rubbing alcohol are more effective, the 70 percent isopropyl alcohol and 30 percent water combination works better as a disinfectant. This combination has more water, therefore it dissolves more slowly, penetrating cells, and killing bacteria. The disinfecting effectiveness of rubbing alcohol drops at concentrations higher than 80 to 85 percent.

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Can You Drink Rubbing Alcohol?

Rubbing alcohol is an industrial solvent that is not suitable for human consumption. While it is possible to consume rubbing alcohol, it is extremely dangerous.

Isopropyl alcohol is created differently than ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Wine, beer, and liquor are fermented and distilled. However, rubbing alcohol is produced in a laboratory specifically for sterilization purposes.

Rubbing alcohol

Despite this, some people, especially children, may accidentally consume rubbing alcohol. People struggling with chronic alcohol addiction may also drink rubbing alcohol to reach a certain level of intoxication. 

Drinking one 500 milliliter bottle of rubbing alcohol in one 24-hour period is the same as consuming 30 beers. One 500 milliliter bottle is the equivalent of almost 17 ounces or just over one pint. As little as 20 milliliters (1.3 tablespoons) of rubbing alcohol mixed with water can make someone sick.

The body absorbs rubbing alcohol very quickly. Approximately 80 percent is absorbed within 30 minutes of ingestion. Due to its chemical makeup, isopropanol does not metabolize as well as ethanol in the human body.

Drinking rubbing alcohol can easily lead to alcohol poisoning. People have died after drinking one pint of isopropyl alcohol. 

Side Effects: What Happens If You Drink Rubbing Alcohol?

The National Capital Poison Control Center states that those who consume rubbing alcohol may behave drunk. Industrial alcohol is extremely irritating to the stomach and intestines too.

Side effects of consumption include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Stumbling
  • Sedation
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Pain in the gut
  • Bleeding in the stomach and intestines
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Dangerous Effects of Drinking Isopropyl 

Bleeding, nausea, and other severe damage from ingesting rubbing alcohol may cause dehydration. This can lead to seizures and cause low blood pressure from internal bleeding and the rubbing alcohol effects as it is metabolized.

Consuming rubbing alcohol can also lead to shock. Isopropyl alcohol is metabolized rapidly, so the effects will impact the central nervous system (CNS) all at once.

As alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, involuntary actions in the body may reduce or stop. The heartbeat will slow and breathing may become irregular. The gag reflex may not work. This can result in oxygen deprivation or choking on vomit.

Poor circulation from heartbeat changes can also lead to damage to organ systems. As rubbing alcohol is extremely powerful, it can also result in internal burns. On contact, isopropyl alcohol can cause chemical burns on the mucous membranes found in the mouth, nose, back of the throat, upper respiratory area, and esophagus. The symptoms of these burns may lead to intense and uncomfortable pain and cramping.

If someone consumes large amounts of rubbing alcohol at once, they may experience pulmonary swelling or inflammation and excess fluid in the lungs. This can make breathing challenging and lead to oxygen deprivation.

Symptoms of Rubbing Alcohol Poisoning 

Rubbing alcohol poisoning or overdose is very likely if it is consumed. Rubbing alcohol poisoning starts to set in within 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion.

The symptoms of isopropyl alcohol poisoning differ by the type and extent of poisoning. Sometimes the symptoms may not appear for some hours.

Symptoms of isopropyl alcohol poisoning include:

  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Stomach pain
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Low body temperature
  • Slurred speech
  • Slow breathing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Unresponsive
  • Throat pain or burning
  • Coma
  • Hypothermia

Immediately after someone consumes isopropyl alcohol, they may feel intoxicated. They may even blackout. There is no "too much to drink" when it comes to isopropyl alcohol.

A lack of oxygen and blood circulation resulting from rubbing alcohol ingestion damages organ systems. Plus, alcohol has blood-thinning properties so rubbing alcohol poisoning leads to fewer red blood cells to move oxygen and nutrients around the body.

Hypothermia is a symptom of alcohol poisoning. It is more likely to occur in individuals who ingest rubbing alcohol to become drunk. This makes a heart attack more likely. Blood sugar levels also drop, making seizures more likel

Treatment for Rubbing Alcohol Poisoning

People who suffer from isopropyl alcohol poisoning may pass out quickly. If you or a loved one has ingested rubbing alcohol, it is essential to call 911 or the poison control center immediately for emergency help. While ingesting a small amount of rubbing alcohol accidentally may not lead to poisoning or death, it is still vital to receive prompt medical attention.

If you or a loved one has swallowed rubbing alcohol, do not encourage vomiting. Isopropyl alcohol is caustic, so it can lead to chemical burns to the esophagus.

Those who have ingested rubbing alcohol may develop severe central nervous system depression and breathing issues that require essential life support measures, including intubation. Individuals with rubbing alcohol poisoning may also need intravenous fluids to tend to fluid loss and treat low blood pressure resulting from vomiting. In some severe cases, potent drugs called vasopressors may be required to prevent cardiovascular collapse and death. 

Anyone with an alcohol addiction who turns to rubbing alcohol should seek help for their chronic alcohol use disorder. Luckily there are many treatment options for those who suffer from alcohol abuse, including:

  • Inpatient ProgramsInpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center. These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care. You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to professional medical monitoring. The first step of an inpatient program is detoxification. Then behavioral therapy and other services are introduced. These programs typically last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer. Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOP). Compared to inpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs provide similar services. These include medical services, behavioral therapy, and support groups, along with other customized therapies. However, in a PHP program, you return home to sleep. Some services provide food and transportation, but services vary by program. PHPs accept new patients as well as people who have completed an inpatient program and still need intensive treatment.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient or partial hospitalization programs. These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment. They are best for people who have a high motivation to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities at home, work, or school. Outpatient programs are often part of aftercare programs once you complete an inpatient or PHP program.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Sometimes, medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment. Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal. Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat AUD. When combined with other evidence-based therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.
  • Support Groups Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery are open to anyone with a substance abuse problem. They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. They can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

Resources

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Isopropyl alcohol, Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, New Jersey Department of Health, February 2016, https://www.nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1076.pdf

National Research Council (US) Committee on Toxicology. Emergency and Continuous Exposure Limits for Selected Airborne Contaminants: Volume 2. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1984. ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK208299/

Chemical Disinfectants, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/disinfection-methods/chemical.html#Alcohol

Ashurst JV, Nappe TM. Isopropanol Toxicity. [Updated 2020 Jun 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493181/

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