The Good and the Bad of Vaporizing and Inhaling Alcohol

Our resident medical expert, Scott, and a buddy of his recently started The Medicine Journal, where you can learn all sorts of interesting facts about all things medical related. Below is a sample article from their site.

alcoholVaporizing, and then inhaling alcohol has gained a lot of attention lately.  In the 1950s it was introduced as a treatment for excessive fluid in your lungs, called pulmonary edema.  It’s now gained popularity as a way to quickly become intoxicated.  Proponents of this process-to-become-plastered, tout several benefits compared to drinking it.  Many claim you get drunk without any calorie intake.   Some state, because you bypass the liver, you can eliminate the alcohol quickly and avoid the dreaded alcohol hangover.

Just about every medical professional commenting on this method of intoxication have warned of the very real consequences.  All while knowing doctors can use the process to treat some life threatening medical conditions.   Before you go to your next college-frat-party and smoke your way to a buzzed-bliss, let’s take an in-depth look at the benefits and risks of inhaling alcohol.

Inhaling any substance, as long as the molecule is small enough, is one of the fastest ways to get it in your bloodstream.  This is because the barrier between your blood and the outside environment is so easily penetrated.  When you inhale air, and all of its impurities (in this case alcohol), the vapor easily crosses the capillary beds that reside in the small air sacs within your lungs, called alveoli.

Once inhaled, the oxygen and alcohol are in higher concentrations than in your blood.  They naturally migrate across the alveoli membrane, equalizing the concentration of those molecules on both sides of it.  This process is called diffusion.  The level of carbon dioxide within the blood is higher than the outside air, and as such, it will also diffuse across the membrane to the environment.  The wonder of a breath is revealed!  This entire process happens almost instantaneously.

Any respecting medical student knows there are a few other ways you can get alcohol in your blood stream.  Compared to inhalation, they all require much more time.  Drinking requires it be broken down by your digestive system.  Absorbing alcohol through mucus membranes, like placing alcohol drops in the eyes, or alcohol enemas, require more time because the absorption rate is much slower than the diffusion within the lungs.

Let’s look at some of the advertised benefits of inhaled alcohol.

Calorie reduction by inhalation is not quite all it’s cracked up to be.  There are only four types of nutrients that have a measurable amount of calories.  Alcohol is one of them.  The other three are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  It doesn’t matter if you drink the alcohol, or inhale it, the calories consumed will be proportional to the amount of alcohol taken in.  The caloric savings comes from the reduction of the carbohydrates within the liquids, namely the sugars.

The higher the alcohol content in the liquid you vaporize, the less this benefit is realized. Vaporizing beer (usually around 5% alcohol by volume), will give you a greater savings compared to vodka (usually around 40% alcohol by volume).

Normally alcohol is removed from the body in three ways.  About 5% is excreted by the kidneys in your urine.  Around 5% is exhaled by your lungs, in the process of diffusion.  This is why breathalyzers are such a great way of determining blood alcohol levels (don’t drink and drive kids). The remaining is chemically broken down by your liver into acetic acid.  There has never been a human study that focused on comparing alcohol elimination times of the different intake methods. There were however, animal studies done in the 1970s, showing ethanol elimination from inhalation was significantly faster compared to ingestion.  The exact mechanism of this elimination, compared to ingestion, was not mentioned.

Don’t think this increased alcohol elimination in animal studies is a good thing.  By bypassing the liver, and its ability to change alcohol to acetic acid, the inhaled alcohol has a much higher strength and its effects becoming more potent.  This might seem enticing to college fraternities, but it’s tremendously overshadowed by the potential harmful consequences.  Overdose (alcohol poisoning) is potentially the most deadly.

Alcohol is a potent central nervous system depressant.   If the level within the blood is high enough, it causes things like: respiratory depression, seizures, and hypothermia.  It can also cause the loss of your gag-reflex.  When combined with vomiting, it can lead to aspiration.  Drowning in your own vomit on a strangers bathroom floor  isn’t the noblest way to end your life.

Bypassing the digestive system eliminates the body’s natural overdose deterrent, vomiting. The methods currently used by people to vaporize alcohol make it extremely difficult to measure the exact amount inhaled.  Even in sober conditions. The inevitable change in mental state also contributes to this difficulty.  The term coyote-ugly comes to mind.

This rapid intoxication, combined with the problems of measuring the amount consumed, leads to a much greater risk of overdose.  It is true, there have been no actual scientific studies looking at the adverse effects of inhaling alcohol, but based on the mechanism of ingestion, most medical professionals agree the potential for deadly consequences is considerable.

Additional concerns about inhaling alcohol revolve around addiction.  Most people who try this form of intoxication describe rapid, and much more intense, reaction.  The “quick-hit” reinforces addictive effects.  Inhaling alcohol also has the potential to damage the lining of your respiratory tract and lungs, predisposing you to a higher risk of lung infections like pneumonia.

While the party-fueled vaporization and inhalation of alcohol is extremely dangerous, there are some real medical benefits when done appropriately.  In 1954, Dr.’s Aldo Luisada, Morton Goldmann and Ruth Weyl used this as a method for treating pulmonary edema, resistant to all other forms of therapy.

The fluid in the lungs, associated with pulmonary edema, contain blood elements that get churned into a froth by the act of breathing.  This leaves foam-like bubbles that make it extremely difficult to diffuse oxygen through the capillary beds.  By bubbling oxygen through a 50% ethyl alcohol solution, the frothy bubbles collapse making it easier to breath.  It’s thought the alcohol alters the surface tension of the bubbles, causing the collapse.  The resulting sputum is also more liquid and is much easier to expel from the lungs.

Another well accepted treatment using alcohol inhalation is in the prevention of alcohol withdrawals post-surgery.  As with any physically addictive substance, when you stop using, withdrawals occur.  Known as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS), the symptoms can be deadly.  In 1908, when hospitalization was uncommon, the mortality rate of AWS was around 37%.  Currently, the mortality rate for patients in a hospital is around 6.6%.  Since even those addicted to alcohol sometimes need surgery, doctors are left with the problem of preventing AWS while they’re recovering.

Medications, known as benzodiazepines, are commonly used.  The intravenous infusion of ethanol is also sometimes administered.  The inhalation of alcohol is becoming widely accepted.  Some doctors even prefer it, claiming it’s easier to control than ethanol infusion.  They also cite the added benefit of increased oxygen levels post-surgery, because oxygen is bubbled through the alcohol.

Whether used for the treatment of pulmonary edema, or AWS, doctors constantly monitor the amount of alcohol inhaled.  They also continually monitor the blood alcohol levels, keeping them in a range that is high enough to get the results they want, while low enough not to cause any unwanted problems.  This ability to monitor the exact amounts of alcohol are what make it safe in a hospital environment compared to the do-it-yourself, at-home methods.

In the end, if you choose to vaporize and inhale alcohol, it will get you drunk very quickly.  You will however, increase your chance of a deadly overdose and potential addiction significantly.

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26 comments

  • Inhaling alcohol will ONLY bypass first-pass metabolism in the liver and will not prevent all metabolism in the liver. I sincerely doubt it will have a significant any type of effect on overall elimination.

    • Lol, bad editing in my first comment. I intended to remove “any type of” from the statement, because I don’t like to speak in absolutes.

      • That’s my thoughts exactly! I was having an argument with a friend the other day, she’d been to a Alko-Fume bar in London and bragged about how it was so much healthier and how it bypassed the liver. I asked if the blood, that had absorbed the alcohol would not eventually make it to the liver via. various arteries. She answered: “Nope, it just doesn’t make it that far, it’s eleminated before it reaches the liver” Please if someone know how it works, please enlighten me 🙂

        • She possibly thought that because blood leaving the digestive tract enters the liver immediately. Maybe she thought that if it wasn’t being absorbed by the digestive tract, it wouldn’t go through the liver. However, the liver is not a part of the digestive tract. All blood will eventually pass through the liver. More importantly, virtually all alcohol that is broken down is done so by the liver. If it wasn’t for the liver, the time alcohol remained active would be far, far longer. Your friend is wrong.

  • Wouldn’t do it myself, because I prefer the flavor of a good whiskey or rum, but more power to em I suppose.

  • So, if bars were allowed the same technology that doctors use to safely administer and regulate vaporized alcohol, the patrons of these bars would not only be sober by the time they got in their cars to drive, they also wouldn’t experience hangovers, vomiting, weight gain, liver failure, prolonged irrationality, or even vehicular homicide victims?

    lame…

  • There’z actually only 3 types of macro nutrients, not four. Carbohydrates, lipids (fats) and proteins. Alcohol is type of carbohydrate, not a fourth macronutrient.

  • I am wondering about the effects of a few drops of alcohol in the distilled water of a CPAP machine. It would not be enough to cause inebriation but would open breathing passages and the alveoli. I think it would also help get rid of the congestion caused by colds and flu.

    • William, I woke up thinking this same thing but for the destruction of the covid-19 virus in early stages it as a daily preventive to a virus load. Kinda like purell for your lungs. Can anyone comment hope likely or crazy this is she what would be the best dilution?

      • Jeff, i woke this morning thinking the same. If it’s done in a controlled way surely it can break down COVID19 with maybe Olbas Oil – just thinking out loud.

        After all either soap or handsanitizer containing more than 70% alcohol breaks down COVID19 .

  • Thought the same thing today. Anyone with medical chops to comment on this?

  • I have a bottle of 151 rum (151 proof, 75.5% alcohol) I was think’n of try’n if necessary. That’s what brought me to this site. According to the article , have to be very careful.

  • Alpaslan Bozkurt

    Will alcohol covid 19 taken with nebulizator be effective on virus?

    • Nebulization of 5% or,less may be helpful in covid19.
      Although inhalation of one drop of 60% of alcohol is very effective in cough problem and may be effective in covid19.It needed little bit of research and trials .Doctors must do some trials on it.

  • Strangely, I saw a video via whatsapp and I got a similar idea, if hand sanitiser can kill Covid 19 on hands could it kill it inside your lungs by inhaling a strong whiskey etc, so I googled it and landed on this site, like the majority off ones on here I’m no medical expert but just thinking out loudly. I’d love to hear what an expert on this matter thinks?

  • I’m not a dr but me and my wife has C O P D and for the last 2 weeks I’ve used 91 % ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL in my c-p 0ne blast of spray in my mask and put it on it makes it a lot easier to breathe and so far no side effects that I know of I have stage 2 C O P D and my sweetheart has stage 4 she’s been using it for 3 days I wanted to try it first to see if it would be safe first I would never tell someone to try it without trying it my self first as far as cov 19 I don’t no if it will or will not kill it I hope someone can do a study on this to find out we all need to know A S A P ! …

  • Ps- wouldn’t use it all the time just as needed …

  • Wonder if vaping alcohol might help clear the lungs of covid 19. Has this been tested? If I get sick I will try it for sure.

  • I am not a medical guy more from an engineering area. From a logical point of view it should help when used in a moderate dose.

  • I have bought a hookah or a shisha and instead of filling it with water I have filled it up with neat vodka and now I am inhaling alcohol vapour when I do my hubble bubble. Logically, soap and alcohol are the two things which renders the COVID19 virus ineffective. I am taking preventive measures to kill the virus as it does not show its symptoms initially. Hence to me it is a preventive measure. Can anyone who knows about inhaling alcohol comment on this preventive method.

  • wondering if just spraying 70 percent alcohol in the air in a smple spray bottle on all mist and inhaling at the same time might kill virus.its been said that in 15 seconds of alcohol will kill covid. maybe several sprays separated by a few minutes would do the trick.

  • Since 60% alcohol is able to kill the virus it only makes since that 60%/120 proof drinking alcohol would have the same effect. The problems with that is some people do not know that isopropyl/rubbing alcohol is not safe to take internally. Also, the drinking kind of alcohol can also be toxic/poisonous when taken excessively. If you use 151 proof rum in a nebulizer “75.5% drinkable alcohol” it should have a positive effect in killing the virus. When breathing the alcohol vapors through the nostrils/nose and deep breaths into the lungs it would be logical to think that it might help. The nebulizer might only hold about a half an ounce, but taking the alcohol vapors straight into the lungs which is almost like going straight into the bloodstream one could experience a toxic level of alcohol quickly. Also, that level of alcohol could sear/burn your sinus tissue. If tried, proceed with caution.

  • It amazes me to no end how silly people can be. Ethyl alcohol is the only safe kind to ingest. Isopropol alcohol is rubbing alcohol and poison when if ingested. Not good to breath isopropol vapors either as this is a form of ingestion.

    Vaping or nebulizing any alcohol is extremely dangerous as the vapors highly flammable and burn with an almost invisable blue flame. DO NOT VAPORIZE NEBULIZE OR OTHERWISE CAUSE ALCOHOL VAPORS TO BE RELEASED INTO THE AIR.

    If you bothered to read the referenced science:
    Alcohol Vapor by Inhalation in the Treatment of Acute Pulmonary Edema
    You would have read that the oxygen the patient on the ventilator was occaisionally bubbled through a 50/50 ethyl alcohol solution. This is so the poor patient does not get drunk and die from alcohol poisoning. This is so simple to do safely by making a bubbler out of a clean plastic water bottle and a 8″ piece of aquarium air supply tubing. Poke a small hole in the upper part of the bottle so the tubing fits tight and insert the tubing so it extends to within an inch of the inside bottom. Then fill the bottle half way with the 50/50 ethyl alcohol/pure distilled water solution. If i did not have this I would filter vodka with activated charcol and then filter paper. Other spirits have sugars, etc. not good for the lungs. Now empty your lungs and take one slow inhalation from the air in the upper half if the bottle, hold it for a moment while replacing the cap and then slowly exhale through both the nose and the mouth. Only take one inhalation every 2-4 hours as needed until the virus is gone. It will disapear in 2-5 days depending on the severity of the infection.

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