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What are the Medical Uses of Ethyl Alcohol?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Ethyl alcohol, also commonly referred to as ethanol, is a colorless liquid that has many uses. Aside from being the most common type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages and certain recreational drugs, it is often used in medicine as an antidote to combat the effects of other types of drugs or alcohol. Since it is considered a volatile chemical, it should only be used with the supervision of a medical professional.

The fermentation of sugar into ethanol is one of the earliest known organic reactions used by man. Early medical uses of this alcohol were primarily for pain relief in the form of liquors. This was before the use of anesthesia, and these methods were effective because of alcohol's intoxicating and sometimes numbing effects on the body. This use is well known and often conjures images of war with physicians giving patients a shot of whiskey before performing surgery or removing limbs injured in battle.

Physicians also used to prescribe ethyl alcohol as a form of antidepressant, due to its effects on the brain. Although alcohol does produce a temporary "high" in humans, commonly referred to as "being drunk," the feelings of euphoria do not last and are not useful in treating depression. Modern medical professionals now understand that alcohol consumed in an effort to numb uncomfortable feelings eventually leads to a dependency and addiction. In fact, it is a depressant rather than the opposite, and can lead to depressive thoughts and feelings with extended use.

In more modern times, ethyl alcohol can be used for its antiseptic properties, and it's often found in antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers. It is effective at killing most bacteria, fungi, and many viruses on the hands and skin, and it is a useful alternative to hand soaps. Medical professionals often use gel sanitizers before treating patients to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.

Ethyl alcohol can also be used as an antidote to help reverse or lessen the effects of certain chemicals, primarily other alcohols like methanol. Once ethanol is added to the system, it competes with the other alcohols to be broken down by the body, and slows down the metabolism of other chemicals in the bloodstream where they typically become toxic.

Side effects of ethanol include irritation to the eyes and skin. When ingested, it can cause stomach irritation resulting in nausea and vomiting. Since it is an intoxicating agent, those who consume alcohol may experience dizziness, feelings of euphoria or an alcohol induced “high,” and loss of consciousness if ingested in large enough amounts. Long-term consumption may cause serious liver damage and depression, as well as leading to alcohol dependency.

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Discussion Comments

By anon324396 — On Mar 10, 2013

What happens if you get ethyl alcohol in your eye?

By John57 — On Nov 17, 2012

@honeybees -- Your comments remind me of my mom who as adamant about using hand sanitizer long before it was considered the thing to do. She always carried little packets of antibacterial wipes with her in her purse.

Every time we went out to eat she would use one to wipe her hands before eating. She would also closely look at the silverware, and sometimes she would use one of these wipes to clean the utensils as well.

We used to kind of tease her about this, but now I realize how important it is. She is one of the healthiest people I know and never comes down with a cold or the flu.

It probably doesn't take much ethyl alcohol in a bottle of hand sanitizer to be effective, but I think it sure makes a big difference.

By honeybees — On Nov 16, 2012

I carry antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer with me everywhere I go. You also see hand sanitizer in many public places where you never used to see it before.

When I go shopping at my favorite retailer store they have antibacterial wipes you can use to wipe off the handles of the grocery cart and also wipe your hands. I don't see a whole lot of people using them, but I bet they do a good job of cutting down on germs for the people who do use them.

If you visit a hospital you also see these available for use. When I think about how many people touch the elevator buttons I realize how important they are. We recently went on a cruise and there was a place where you could sanitize your hands every time you walked on or off the ship.

By julies — On Nov 15, 2012

I usually have a bottle of ethyl isopropyl alcohol somewhere in the house. It's cheap and a bottle lasts a long time because we hardly ever use it. When someone has a cut or scrape I don't ever think about cleansing it with alcohol. I usually reach for the hydrogen peroxide first.

By SarahGen — On Sep 05, 2012

Ethyl alcohol is also very good for nausea. But I don't mean that it should be consumed, it's usually sniffed like a cologne would be sniffed.

When I was traveling abroad, I came across this lemon-scented ethyl alcohol product that people were using to help with their nausea during rough bus rides in the country side. The roads were very bad and everyone was getting sick. This product was being passed around on the bus and it really helps with the nausea.

At one point, I was also very nauseated and would pour this on a tissue and sniff it to get through it. I think it was just lemon oil mixed with ethyl alcohol. It certainly didn't cause any euphoria or anything like that though, which is good.

By ddljohn — On Sep 04, 2012

@pleonasm-- I agree with you. Even though we have modern medicine available, in some countries the medical facilities are very poor or just lacking in general. So I'm sure that ethyl alcohol continues to be used in such places where anesthesia is not available. And it might just be people trying to treat themselves or going to elders for treatment and alcohol is all that's available. It's sad but true.

By literally45 — On Sep 03, 2012

I call ethyl alcohol "rubbing alcohol" and we always keep a bottle of this in our first aid cabinet at home and our first aid bag in the car. I think it's a great way to kill germs when you have a dirty wound that needs more than soap and water.

I go hiking a lot and I have fallen and scraped my leg and arm on a couple of occasions. When you're out in nature, dust and dirt usually get into the wound and increase the risk of infection. So that's when I use rubbing alcohol on it to get rid of all the germs.

By umbra21 — On Aug 17, 2012

@pleonasm - It is pretty cool that now you can just buy ethyl alcohol from any pharmacy and use it to sterilize anything you need sterilized.

But my favorite use of alcohol in a fictional historical setting has to be from Quantum Leap. There was an episode where he had to stop a woman from going into labor because the baby was too early and they would have lost it.

And, he makes the doctor give her intravenous alcohol to stop her contractions. I have no idea if that would work in real life (although I suspect they based the episode on real science) but it was pretty clever and not a medical use for alcohol that would be recommended these days!

By pleonasm — On Aug 16, 2012

I will always be grateful that I live in a time where we have access to better pain relief and anesthesia than alcohol. I can't even imagine the pain that people had to go through once, just to have common procedures done. Often the shock alone would kill people.

I visited an old operating theater that is now a museum when I was in London and they described what we would now consider to be fairly advanced procedures, all of which were done to patients who were tied down on the table and given a bit of alcohol if they were lucky. The sad thing is, that alcohol would have been of more use to them if it was poured over the site of their operation.

Once again, thank god that we live in a world where we don't have to make the choice between dying and facing that kind of torture.

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