Most families have a bottle of isopropyl alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol) sitting in their cabinet at home. This chemical is typically used as a household cleaning product or as a disinfectant, such as a hand sanitizer. However, if someone in your home struggles with alcohol abuse, rubbing alcohol can serve as a temptation with some severe side effects.

Rubbing Alcohol Abuse

At first glance, rubbing alcohol does not seem like a substance anyone would want to ingest. This is, of course, because it’s not; isopropyl alcohol belongs to a chemical group known as toxic alcohols. But despite rubbing alcohol’s harsh smell, which is reminiscent of nail polish, and occasionally bizarre color (the result of dye from the producer), rubbing alcohol ingestion still accounts for a sizeable portion of hospital visits every year.

As the National Capital Poison Center points out, many of these cases involve accidental ingestion, usually by a child who mistakes the rubbing alcohol for water or some other drink. However, there are also known cases of people drinking the liquid or huffing the fumes to experience a “drunkenness” like that of drinking alcohol. This behavior is incredibly dangerous. Although drinking a large amount of any alcohol can be harmful, ingesting even a small amount of isopropyl alcohol can damage the body.

The Dangers of Drinking Rubbing Alcohol

A Dangerous Drink

A person who is drinking rubbing alcohol will surely have an explanation for why they have chosen this substance. They may be underage, or they can’t afford to buy alcohol. They may simply want to get drunk as fast as possible. the book Toxic Alcohols points out that the effects of rubbing alcohol are practically immediate, as 80 percent of the substance is absorbed into the bloodstream in the first 30 minutes. But of course, these explanations do not offset the dangers of drinking isopropyl alcohol.

Unlike ethanol, which can be consumed (relatively) safely, rubbing alcohol should never be ingested. Swallowing even a small portion of this compound can lead to IPA poisoning, which in turn can lead to many health problems. These side effects range in severity from stomach pain to heart palpitations, but they all spell trouble for the individual who is drinking rubbing alcohol.

Rubbing Alcohol Effects

In the short-term, and with a small dosage, rubbing alcohol can lead to feelings of intoxication, as well as the usual side effects of drunkenness: slurred speech, dizziness, nausea, etc. But when a person drinks rubbing alcohol to excess (a likely possibility if they are trying to get drunk) or they drink it for a long time, the side effects of isopropyl alcohol will occur. These include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Eye and mucous membrane irritation
  • Lack of coordination
  • Cornea burns
  • Gastritis
  • Brain damage
  • Coma

Another long-term side effect of drinking rubbing alcohol is acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. This condition can develop after chronic rubbing alcohol abuse, as the isopropyl alcohol burns the internal organs, ultimately damaging the lungs. ARDS can make it difficult for a person to breathe, and it can also lead to insufficient oxygen levels in the blood.

Is Overdose Possible?

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, it is entirely possible to overdose of isopropyl alcohol. Research has shown that average adults will experience IPA poisoning, bordering on overdose, if they consume more than 200 mL of rubbing alcohol in a single sitting. After that point, people may experience slowed breathing, ataxia (a condition where one loses control of their body movements), and unconsciousness.

If someone you know overdoses by drinking rubbing alcohol, it is important that you call the poison control center immediately and get the individual to the hospital. Make sure you bring the container of rubbing alcohol with you to the hospital, as this will help doctors in their efforts to revive the overdosed individual. Emergency care providers will likely pump the individual’s stomach to remove the alcohol, though in severe cases, dialysis may be necessary to remove acetone from the blood.

When a person is struggling with an addiction to alcohol, they are likely to seek out any substance that will make them feel better, often in an effort to manage uncomfortable and even painful symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. In the case of rubbing alcohol, it is important to recognize that this liquid is far from a suitable replacement for standard alcohol like beer, wine, and liquor.