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The Lethal Consequences of Rubbing Alcohol: What Happens When You Drink It?

Written by Abby Doty

& Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

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Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

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Updated 03/02/2022

Drinking alcohol and rubbing alcohol are very different. Consuming rubbing alcohol can lead to dangerous side effects, bodily harm and alcohol poisoning.

Rubbing alcohol is a cheap and commonly available chemical used as a disinfectant. Because this sanitizing agent contains alcohol, some people wonder if it could be safe to drink or if it can cause serious health problems. Drinking rubbing alcohol can actually be very dangerous and quickly lead to alcohol poisoning.

How Is Rubbing Alcohol Made?

Rubbing alcohol contains two ingredients: isopropyl alcohol and water. Typically, about 70% of the solution is isopropyl alcohol and the rest is water, but there may be solutions with a higher concentration of isopropyl alcohol.

What Is Rubbing Alcohol Used For?

Rubbing alcohol does not have very many uses. The most common use is as a disinfectant or sanitizer. It can be used as an alcohol-based sanitizer that substitutes for soap and water if the hands are not visibly grimy. Isopropyl alcohol gained more widespread use during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people became more conscious about the risk of spreading infections. Rubbing alcohol can also be used as a solvent or as antifreeze.

Can You Get Drunk off Rubbing Alcohol?

Rubbing alcohol can make you feel drunk but also has a moderate chance of killing you. It can make people intoxicated, but it is not the same as drinking alcohol. Many people think that alcohol only refers to a chemical that you can drink recreationally. Alcohol, however, actually refers to an entire class of chemicals, most of which are very toxic.

Ethyl alcohol is the specific type of alcohol used for drinking, and every other type of alcohol is considered unsafe to ingest. Rubbing alcohol uses isopropyl alcohol, not ethyl alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol can be very toxic, and fatalities have occurred after drinking as little as eight ounces — the equivalent of ⅔ of a can of beer.

What Happens if You Drink Rubbing Alcohol?

When you drink rubbing alcohol, it quickly absorbs into your digestive tract and is metabolized by your body. It irritates your gastric tract as your body absorbs it, causing abdominal pain and nausea. Your body converts the isopropyl alcohol into acetone, the smelly and toxic chemical found in nail polish remover. Acetone can lead to many dangerous symptoms, suppressing your brain activity and potentially having fatal effects.

Effects of Drinking Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol causes side effects through the irritant effect it has on the intestines and the intoxicating effect that it and its byproducts create on the nervous system. Some of the effects of drinking rubbing alcohol include:

  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Slurred speech
  • Slow breathing
  • Low body temperature
  • Decreased responsiveness
  • Throat pain
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Isopropyl Alcohol Poisoning

Isopropyl alcohol poisoning can occur after ingesting even a small amount of isopropyl alcohol. It can also occur without drinking it; prolonged exposure to isopropyl alcohol fumes can cause you to inhale enough to have isopropyl alcohol poisoning. Poison Control recommends that anyone who has ingested isopropyl alcohol call a Poison Control center or seek emergency medical care immediately even before any symptoms appear, as immediate treatment may be necessary to avoid death.

Can Drinking Rubbing Alcohol Kill You?

Drinking rubbing alcohol can definitely kill you. A couple of tablespoons is enough to kill a child who gets into a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a few ounces can be fatal in an adult. Any use of rubbing alcohol to get drunk is very dangerous. Even if drinking rubbing alcohol is not fatal, it can lead to permanent brain damage or damage to your other organs.

What To Do if You or Someone Else Drinks Rubbing Alcohol

If you or someone you are with may have ingested rubbing alcohol, you should immediately seek medical care. Do not wait for symptoms to develop, as this delay could use up valuable time needed to provide life-saving care. Call 911 and wait for medical services to arrive. Avoid inducing vomiting, as this can lead to further injury and is not likely to help. You can call Poison Control; however, do not do this instead of calling 911, as this can delay care.

Emergency medical care is best provided by a hospital. The hospital staff will have to do more involved testing to ensure kidney and liver function are okay. They may have to do many other procedures to treat the effects of isopropyl alcohol on the body. In severe cases, the person who used isopropyl alcohol may even need to be placed on life support.

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Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

Someone considering using isopropyl alcohol to get drunk likely has an alcohol addiction that warrants professional treatment. Alcohol addiction treatment involves two main steps. The first is detox, in which the body goes through withdrawal and adjusts to the absence of alcohol. The second is rehab, where the person recovering from addiction learns new coping strategies and is empowered to live a life free from addiction.

Alcohol addiction treatment can be outpatient, simply involving visits to doctors and therapy for treatment. It can also be inpatient, involving actually living in a rehab facility for a few weeks. Inpatient rehab is a more intensive method of treatment but provides a better chance of recovery.

At The Recovery Village at Baptist Health, we provide top-level inpatient and outpatient care, helping those with addiction achieve lasting freedom. We invite you to contact us to learn how you or your loved one can join the many success stories of people we have helped overcome addiction.

View Sources

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Isopropyl alcohol.” October 30, 2019. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Sivilotti, Marco L. A. “Isopropyl alcohol poisoning.” UpToDate. 2022. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Matteucci, Michael J. “Chapter 89. Isopropyl Alcohol.” Poisoning and Drug Overdose, 6e. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Levine, Michael D. “What is the pathophysiology of isopropanol alcohol toxicity?” Medscape, January 05, 2021. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Mekonnen, Serkalem. “Rubbing Alcohol Only Looks Like Water .” Poison Control. 2022. Accessed January 28, 2022.

Levine, Michael D. “Alcohol Toxicity.” Medscape, January 05, 2021. Accessed January 28, 2022.