Isopropyl alcohol, or rubbing alcohol, may cost tens of cents, but improper inhalation of the volatile liquid poses a number of dangers. Regardless of how you use isopropyl alcohol, you must understand that doing so is not without risk. While severe complications are rare, they can occur. Always read the manufacturer’s warning label and never ingest or use isopropyl alcohol as a means of getting high.
Isopropyl alcohol is a liquid consisting of 70 percent isopropyl, or absolute alcohol. Used to relieve joint pain, it is also used for sterilization, disinfection and cleaning. It can be applied to the body before or after a piercing is performed or used to kill the bacteria responsible for athlete’s foot. It is also effective when used in combination with other treatments to eliminate lice.
Isopropyl alcohol fumes can be absorbed into the lung membrane and result in brain and nerve damage. Common symptoms of nerve damage include dizziness and numbness. Less severe symptoms include nausea and headaches. When inhaled briefly or sniffed in a robust fashion, you may experience a quick headache or demonstrate an intolerance for the odor.
In some cases, inhaling isopropyl alcohol can cause blindness and liver failure. However, limited inhalation of the liquid may not result in any symptoms. Like other toxins and poisons that are inhaled or ingested in a low amount or over a limited period of time, the body may not produce physical symptoms. In this case, the lungs have absorbed the trace or small amount of the isopropyl without a significant amount of damage to the brain, lungs or nerves.
Alcohol can consist of three types of chemicals: ethyl, isopropyl and methyl. Isopropyl, the chemical used to produce isopropyl alcohol, is manmade and does not have a natural source. Isopropyl and methyl are both considered poisonous; ethyl is not. The lungs and other systems and organs of the body can tolerate ethyl.
Contact a poison control center or medical professional if you consume isopropyl alcohol. For brief exposure to isopropyl fumes, wait to see whether symptoms appear and then contact a health-care professional for immediate medical attention. It is best to use isopropyl alcohol in a well-ventilated area to avoid the risk of improper inhalation.