Teens  |  Adults  |  Alcohol

Inhaling Alcohol Is Dangerous

The Bottom Line

Alcohol vapors can be produced by heating up alcohol or pouring it over dry ice. Alcohol can be absorbed into your bloodstream by inhaling alcohol vapors. People who inhale alcohol vapors get drunk very quickly, because the alcohol goes straight to the brain. Also, heated alcohol vapor can injure the lungs.

The Full Story

The old-fashioned way of getting drunk is simple: drink too much alcohol. The new way to get drunk? "Smoke" your alcohol instead. Inhaling alcohol can harm the brain, lungs, and intoxicate someone very quickly.

When people smoke alcohol, they heat it up. Or, they pour it over dry ice. This makes a vapor which they inhale into their lungs. Inhaling alcohol vapor causes a rapid and intense "high". Absorption through the lungs provides almost instant delivery of the alcohol to the bloodstream and the brain; the effects of the alcohol are felt very quickly. Small amounts of inhaled alcohol may make a person much more drunk than drinking the alcohol instead.

Smoking alcohol bypasses the digestive system, so the ads state that alcohol calories are not absorbed.This claim makes smoking alcohol very attractive to teens and young adults: they think they can get "buzzed" without consuming calories from drinking alcohol. But it's NOT TRUE. Alcohol comes with calories, whether swallowed, inhaled, or injected.

There are other problems.

  • The increased absorption of alcohol can harm the brain. This is a particular hazard to teens and young adults, because their brains have not finished developing yet.
  • Alcohol irritates the stomach. Sometimes, drinking too much alcohol causes vomiting; this can limit how much alcohol is absorbed. When you smoke alcohol, it never passes through the stomach and so doesn't cause vomiting. The effects can be serious: passing out, slow breathing, and injuries such as falls and drunk-driving crashes.
  • The heated vapor itself may also cause lung injury that could lead to long term breathing problems.

So far, no human studies have been published about the health effects of inhaling alcohol. (There are studies that demonstrate that alcohol is absorbed from the bloodstream after inhalation.) Studies in rats show several problems.

  • In rats, chronic alcohol inhalation leads to more and more alcohol-seeking behaviors.
  • It also increases anxiety behaviors in rats.
  • It can be addictive.
  • Inhaling alcohol can cause changes in the brain; rats need higher and higher doses to produce the same drunk feeling.
  • An alcohol withdrawal syndrome can also occur This causes symptoms of anxiety, tremors, sweating, chills, and seizures.

Smoking alcohol may be the next new thing, but it is at least as risky as abusing alcohol by drinking.

Take Home Message:

  • Alcohol can be absorbed into your bloodstream by inhaling alcohol vapors.
  • Vapors are produced by heating up alcohol or pouring it over dry ice.
  • People who inhale alcohol vapors get drunk very quickly, because the alcohol goes straight to the brain.
  • Heated alcohol vapor can injure the lungs.

Nicole Reid, RN, BSN, MEd
Certified Specialist in Poison Information


For More Information

Alcohol use and abuse, FAQs  (CDC)


References

Gilpin NW, Richardson HN, Cole M, Koob GF.  Vapor inhalation of alcohol in rats. Curr Protoc Neurosci. 2008 Jul; Chapter 9: Unit 9.29.

Grace, K. "It's a poison": Trend of inhaling alcohol vapors alarms doctors. WFAA8 TV. Posted 26 Feb 2013. Accessed 12 July 2013.

Luisada AA, Goldmann MA, Weyl R. A. (1952) Alcohol vapor by inhalation in the treatment of acute pulmonary edema. Circulation. 1952;5:363–9.

Nye, J. Parents' horror as new $35 device lets you inhale alcohol goes on sale in U.S. Daily Mail.  Posted 14 Jan 20113. Accessed 12 July 2013.

Zhang P, Yang Zhiguang, Zhao Y, Liu Y, Zhang L, Shao G. Inhalation of alcohol vapor driven by oxygen is a useful therapeutic method for postoperative alcohol withdrawal syndrome in a patient with esophageal cancer. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2011;46(4), pp. 424–426.

Poisoned?

CALL 1-800-222-1222

Prevention Tips

  • Do NOT inhale alcohol!
  • Do NOT heat and inhale alcohol vapors.
  • Do NOT pour alcohol over dry ice and inhale the "smoke".

This Really Happened

The buzz is beating medical journals. The internet is full of videos and stories of kids who got really, really drunk by smoking alcohol. It will take a while for peer-reviewed medical journals to catch up with case reports of dangerously intoxicated alcohol smokers.