What Harm Can Sniffing Rubbing Alcohol Cause?

Rubbing alcohol is a liquid made of 70 percent isopropyl which is pure alcohol. Many people use rubbing alcohol to relive joint pain, to clean or disinfect a wound or to sterilize something. It is used in parlors to clean an area before or sometimes after a piercing. You can also use it in combination with other treatments to eliminate lice. Even with all these benefits, it is good to remember that sniffing rubbing alcohol can cause serious problems.

What Can Happen If You Sniff Rubbing Alcohol?

1. Headache, Nausea and Vomiting

A headache could come from just a sniff of the alcohol or from being exposed to it long-term. The fumes of rubbing alcohol can cause digestive problems such as vomiting or nausea if there is long-term exposure.

2. Irritation

One of the most common side effects of sniffing the rubbing alcohol is mucous membrane irritation. If there is extreme exposure, such as a chemical spill, the mucous membranes can actually be burned. Nasal passages can become runny like the person has allergies. A sore throat is another side effect of breathing in rubbing alcohol.

Sniffing rubbing alcohol is particularly dangerous for children because their respiratory systems are not able to handle the fumes. It’s important to note that employees of companies producing rubbing alcohols can even develop laryngeal and sinus cancers.

3. Difficulty Breathing

Exposure to isopropyl alcohol has been shown to cause breathing difficulty. This is particularly dangerous if the person already suffers from breathing trouble, like asthma. Frequent coughing will occur, making it hard for the person to catch breath. If impaired breathing is prolonged, the person can have a difficult time getting enough oxygen in the blood. This can make them dizzy or even cause them to lose consciousness, requiring CPR. If you are having trouble breathing, you must get to fresh air immediately. If the problems still persist, then calling 911 is recommended.

4. Problems with Pregnancy

When a woman is pregnant, sniffing or any exposure can pose a risk to the unborn baby and herself. Rubbing alcohol can be absorbed by inhalation, thus causing substantial health risks to the unborn child. It can even put you at risk for spontaneous and abrupt abortion. Sniffing the rubbing alcohol can also be the cause of birth defects like fetal alcohol syndrome or predispose your unborn baby to developing cancer.

5. Addiction

There are some users who will tell you sniffing isopropyl alcohol gives a sense of feeling good, calmness, euphoria, peaceful relaxation and an enormous high. These feelings cause them to feel like they have to smell rubbing alcohol, and they gradually become addicted. Memory impairment, nerve damage, and brain cell loss can all happen, as can blindness and eye irritation.

Do You Have Rubbing Alcohol Toxicity?

In addition to sniffing rubbing alcohol, prolonged skin contact can also cause toxicity. If accidental ingestion of rubbing alcohol happens, you should contact poison control and emergency services immediately. Some symptoms are coma, stupor, inebriation and even death.


The first step is asking the history of contact with rubbing alcohol. A physical exam from the physicians should be arranged. There may be specific pulmonary testing performed to reveal respiratory trouble. Your doctor will look for a lowered body temperature, labored breathing, flushing, slurred speech or an increased pulse. He/she may check your eyes for possible damage as well as examine your urine and blood for signs of trouble. To test for exposure, your doctor may measure your breath when you exhale to check the amount of rubbing alcohol.


  • Removal from being exposed is the first step in treatment. Getting out of the environment, or getting it off of your skin is most important.
  • Respiratory support is often provided which includes fluids and oxygen, in the cases of sniffing rubbing alcohol in large amounts.
  • Remove any clothing that’s contaminated and wash yourself with soap and water, rinsing the area well. If irritation to the area occurs, you should follow up with your doctor immediately.
  • If the person was wearing contacts at the time, they need to be removed. Flush the eyes with cool water or saline solution for twenty or more minutes.

The following steps will be dependent on what the exposure did and what organs were impacted.

If rubbing alcohol is ingested, emptying the stomach is recommended. This is done with water flushing, called gastric lavage. Activated charcoal and laxatives are often used as well. Vomiting is not recommended because rubbing alcohol is volatile and could be aspirated into the lungs, causing a long list of other medical problems.

Those who are still awake and are not having convulsions are encouraged to drink a couple glasses of water to dilute the rubbing alcohol. Doctors will make sure electrolytes are fine and dehydration isn’t a concern as well as monitor blood pressure. In severe cases, kidney dialysis may be recommended.

How to Use Rubbing Alcohol Safely

Use caution when handling and storing rubbing alcohol.

  • Keep equipment grounded. Store separated and in an approved area. Keep cool and well-ventilated. Store in a tightly sealed container until needed. Avoid heat, all sources of fire or ignition. Keep away from acids and oxidizing agents.
  • Only use in well ventilated area and with respiratory equipment. Those working with it should wear lab coats, goggles and respirators. They also need to use gloves.
  • Airborne vapors need to be kept below threshold limits in working environments with proper exhaust fans. Safety showers and eyewash stations must also be provided.
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