Rubbing alcohol is a common household product that can clean surfaces and disinfect cuts and scratches. The main ingredient is isopropyl alcohol, or isopropanol. This isn’t the same kind of alcohol that is found in liquor, beer, and wine – that’s ethyl alcohol, or ethanol.
Although both types of alcohols act as poisons, isopropanol is about twice as dangerous as ethanol, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Approximately 8 ounces of isopropanol is enough to kill a grown man (for reference, a standard drink contains about 0.6 ounces of pure ethanol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Rubbing Alcohol in the Body
When isopropanol enters the body, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. It can be consumed orally, get into the eyes, be inhaled, or be absorbed through the skin.
From there, the kidneys can directly clear about 30 percent of the alcohol, while special enzymes break the remaining 70 percent down into acetone, as described in the Canadian Family Physician. The kidneys further clean the blood of most of the acetone, although some is exhaled through the lungs.
Acetone is another dangerous poison. The combined effects of isopropanol and acetone can cause a wide range of unpleasant and life-threatening symptoms, which the NLM describes:
- Topical irritation
- Eyes: chemical burns to the cornea
- Skin: redness and pain
- Throat: irritation and pain
- Feeling drunk
- Loss of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Rapid heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Low body temperature
- Abdominal pain
- Vomiting, including vomiting blood
- Problems urinating
- Unresponsive reflexes
- Slowed or impaired breathing
- Brain damage
- Kidney failure
How to Help
If someone you know has been exposed to isopropanol and started showing any of the above symptoms as a result, take the following steps:
- Seek medical help immediately. Find out the person’s age, weight, any medical conditions that are present, what type of rubbing alcohol was consumed, when the alcohol was consumed, and how much was consumed. This information will help medical professionals figure out the best way to help your friend or loved one.
- Call 911 if the person is unconscious, convulsing, or shows any other symptoms that might indicate serious poisoning. Hospitals will have access to lifesaving treatments, such as enzyme blockers or dialysis.
- Call the National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) to learn how to handle less severe cases. They can also provide information about rubbing alcohol in non-emergency situations.
- When isopropanol has been orally consumed: If the person is conscious, not convulsing or vomiting, and able to breathe normally, have him drink a glass or two of water. This can help dilute the alcohol and slow the rate that it enters the bloodstream. Water will also help keep the person hydrated, which is necessary for the kidneys to function properly.
- Do NOT try to make the person throw up unless directed to do so by a medical professional. This may cause him to accidentally inhale some isopropanol and worsen his condition. The rising poison can also further damage the esophagus.
- When isopropanol gets into the eyes: Flush the person’s eyes out with clean water. If she wears contacts, make sure they are removed so they do not trap isopropanol against the eye.
- When isopropanol has been inhaled: Move the person to fresh air.
If you have been struggling with alcohol abuse, including abuse of rubbing alcohol, we can help. Call us today for more information on treatment options.