Due to many circumstances — being underage, having a severe alcohol addiction, lacking money, etc. — people have turned to drinking isopropyl (also called “rubbing alcohol”). They hope to feel the same effects as drinking beer, wine or liquor, but the dangers far outweigh any potential tipsiness or drunken “fun.”

What Is Isopropyl?

Isopropyl is a colorless liquid that can be dissolved in water, ethanol, ether, acetone and chloroform. It will not dissolve in any liquid containing salt.

It smells like a mixture of acetone (a familiar smell if you’ve ever painted your nails) and liquor. The smell can also be described as both sharp and musty.

Combining isopropyl with air and oxygen can create unstable, explosive compounds, especially in confined spaces.

Where Is Isopropyl Found?

Isopropyl — which can also be called isopropanol or dimethyl carbinol — is used in:

  • Antifreeze
  • Solvents
  • Shellac
  • Essential oils
  • Quick-drying inks
  • Preservatives
  • Body rubs
  • Hand lotions
  • After-shave
  • Some cosmetics
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Alcohol swabs
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Paint thinner
  • Perfume
  • Antiseptics

Generally, isopropyl is abused by drinking or huffing rubbing alcohol; however, it can also be absorbed through the skin. There is an old wives’ tale that sponge-bathing a child in isopropyl can lower a fever, but this can easily cause alcohol poisoning, especially in younger kids.

None of these products are meant to be swallowed, snorted or huffed, and an overdose officially occurs once isopropyl enters the body.

Alcohol poisoning can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.

How Do People Misuse Isopropyl?

Some people drink isopropyl in order to get the same effects as ethanol — alcohol that is legal to drink. In short, it can provide some of the same effects as drunkenness. Others inhale the vapors to cause intoxication, elation, euphoria, dizziness, exhilaration, etc. Both activities are extremely dangerous.

What Are the Side Effects of Using Isopropyl?

If you ingest isopropyl, you are at high risk of poisoning yourself, according to the Toxicology Data Network, since your body absorbs 80% of an oral dose in 30 minutes. In fact, some people try to commit suicide this way.

This risk of poisoning occurs because isopropyl is about twice as toxic as liquor. A fatal oral dose is only 160–250 mL, which is the size of a standard bottle of rubbing alcohol or smaller. It is much harder to determine the fatal dose of inhaled isopropyl due to factors like exposure to fresh air, proximity to vapors, etc.

Some side effects include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest tightness
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Eye and mucous membrane irritation The throat, stomach, and intestines are particularly sensitive when it is imbibed. The nose and eyelids are sensitive when it is inhaled.
  • Headache
  • Lack of coordination
  • Miosis, or narrowed pupils
  • Reddened skin, accompanied by pain
  • Sleepiness
  • Throat pain
  • Too much or too little urine
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar

More serious effects include:

  • Cornea burns and other damages
  • Decreased central nervous system, kidney, liver, and cardiovascular functioning
  • Gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach lining which can lead to ulcers or an increased risk of stomach cancer
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding, which can lead to vomiting blood
  • Hypothermia
  • Lactic acidosis, a condition where lactic acid builds up in your blood faster than it can be removed, causing weakness and nausea, can occur when you have used a large amount of isopropyl. This is especially dangerous because lactic acid is produced when oxygen levels drop.
  • Ataxia, or the loss of control over bodily movements
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Tachycardia, or an abnormally fast heart rate. Serious cases can cause a heart attack, stroke, or death.
  • Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas; severe cases can be life-threatening.
  • Brain damage
  • Coma

Related Topic: Alcohol gastritis treatment

What Should You Do if You Use Isopropyl, or Someone Else Does?

Call 911, the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) or your local emergency number immediately.

Take note of:

  • Your/the intoxicated person’s age, approximate weight, and condition
  • The name of the product that was ingested or inhaled, along with the ingredients and the strength of the product
  • How long ago it was ingested or inhaled
  • How much isopropyl was ingested or inhaled

Do not try to make the intoxicated person throw up unless advised to. Drink water or milk, or give some to them right away unless advised not to. If they are having a difficult time swallowing, do not force them to drink. If they breathed in isopropyl, move them to fresh air right away.

Bring the container to the hospital with you. This will assist the doctors in their course of treatment.

What Will Treatment Entail?

Depending on how much isopropyl you used, treatment for alcohol abuse can vary. However, these are some of the types of medical attention you are likely to receive:

  • Blood and urine testing
  • Breathing support, including intubation or a ventilator
  • A chest x-ray
  • An EKG
  • IV fluids
  • A tube through the nose into the stomach to help empty the stomach contents, especially if you/someone else took more than one swallow and if you arrived within 30 to 60 minutes.

Severe cases could warrant dialysis, to protect the kidneys.

Recovery from exposure to isopropyl by ingestion or inhalation is likely. However, the dangers of this substance cannot be denied. Despite the potentially attractive side effects of using isopropyl, bear in mind the severe bodily harm can result from ingesting or inhaling this chemical.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol abuse or an alcohol addiction, help is available. Contact The Recovery Village today to discuss treatment options that can start you on the path to an alcohol-free life.

  • Sources

    Ataxia.” Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Clinic, 29 March 2014. 8 October 2016.

    Eisner, MD, Todd. “Gastrointestinal bleeding.” MedLine Plus. US National Library of Medicine, 11 January 2015. 8 October 2016.

    Gastritis.” Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Clinic, 14 May 2014. 8 October 2016.

    Heller, MD, Jacob L. “Isopropanol overdose.” MedLine Plus. US National Library of Medicine, 13 October 2015. 8 October 2016.

    Inhaling Toxic Fumes.” The Revised Code of Washington. Washington State Legislature. 8 October 2016.

    Isopropanol.” Toxicology Data Network. US National Library of Medicine, 5 December 2015. 8 October 2016.

    Isopropyl Alcohol.” Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet. New Jersey Department of Health, April 2011. 8 October 2016.

    Miosis.” Medical Subject Headings. National Center for Biotechnology Information, 1990. 8 October 2016.

    Pancreatitis.” Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Clinic, 18 August 2016. 8 October 2016.

    Tachycardia.” Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Clinic, 6 May 2014. 8 October 2016.

    Vorvick, MD, Linda J. “Lactic acidosis.” MedLine Plus. US National Library of Medicine, 2 November 2014. 8 October 2016.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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