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
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