Inhaling Alcohol

I’ve had this notification sitting in my inbox until I could get a moment to look at it. My first reaction is, “why bother?” People have been consuming alcohol for thousands of years, and for better or for worse, it does what it does. Then I looked at the comments about the practice, and I thought, “wait a minute!”

Signs of alcohol poisoning.

Signs of alcohol poisoning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what’s the “wait a minute” moment? The spokesman who’s condemning the practice is worried about people dying from alcohol poisoning because the users are getting the alcohol straight to the brain. OK, so that’s a risk. But the main reason for people overdosing on alcohol now is that it takes 20-30 minutes for it to get from your mouth to your brain when you drink it. If you drink fast, you can consume enough ethanol to overdose before the effects really  hit you. You pass out,  your party buddies roll into a corner (on your side because everyone knows you don’t want to aspirate your vomit when you throw up while unconscious), and go back to partying. Meanwhile, the reservoir of alcohol that’s in your stomach goes on being absorbed into your blood stream, and the next time your buddies check up on you (if they remember to check, what with being drunk and all) , you’re not breathing. to use a medical term, that’s called death. And there’s no antidote to alcohol poisoning. By the time they call 911, the ambulance gets you to the hospital, etc., they can’t revive you. The latest advice for over-enthusiastic drinkers is that when someone who’s been drinking heavily passes out like that, you call 911 and get them on life support before they stop breathing. Then the body will be kept on life support until it can break down the alcohol.

OK, fine. What does this have to do with inhaling alcohol? Well, this is just my speculation, so don’t use it as a guide to your actions. But it seems to me that what’s seen as a down side to consuming ethanol through the inhalation route could actually be an upside. See, the drug (don’t forget, alcohol is a mind altering drug) will, as noted, get to your brain immediately– about seven seconds. But you can only do a lungful of vapor at a time. So if you get enough to pass out– boom, over you go, and you’re not going to do any more for a while. You don’t have a reservoir of alcohol in your system doing its slow but inexorable work.

By the way, if you want a guide to drinking, the National Institutes of Health guideline on healthy drinking is  one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Five or more per day or four or more per day for women is considered definitely unhealthy. You can do the math and figure out the gray area.

What that means if you’re huffing alcohol vapor, I don’t know.  I’m guessing you’re not huffing the vapor from a fine Cabernet because you like the nose, and you’re not huffing alcohol from a craft beer because you like the organic hops they used. But one thing that’s refreshing about it– the honesty. People inhaling alcohol vapor are clearly in it for the buzz.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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