Isopropyl Alcohol Poisoning

Medically reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD on November 13, 2017Written by Lydia Krause and Lauren Reed-Guy

What is isopropyl alcohol poisoning?

Isopropyl alcohol (IPA), also referred to as isopropanol, is a chemical that’s commonly found in rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizers, and certain cleaning products. IPA poisoning occurs when your liver is no longer able to manage the amount of IPA in your body.

Ingestion of IPA may be accidental or deliberate. IPA causes rapid intoxication, so people sometimes drink it to get drunk. Others use it to attempt suicide.

Symptoms may appear immediately or may take a few hours to become noticeable. IPA poisoning usually causes:

In severe cases, it can lead to a coma.

IPA poisoning requires immediate medical attention. Call 911 or go to an emergency room right away if you suspect that you or someone you know has IPA poisoning.

Symptoms of isopropyl alcohol poisoning

The symptoms of IPA poisoning vary by the type and extent of poisoning. Sometimes, the symptoms may not appear for several hours.

The symptoms of IPA poisoning include:

Causes of isopropyl alcohol poisoning

Your body can handle small amounts of IPA. In fact, your kidneys remove approximately 20 to 50 percent of IPA from your body. The rest is broken down into acetone by enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenases. This acetone is filtered out of your body through your lungs or kidneys.

However, when you ingest more IPA than your body can manage (which occurs around 200 milliliters for an adult), poisoning can occur.

The abuses of isopropyl alcohol that may lead to poisoning include ingestion and inhalation:

  • IPA can make people feel drunk, so some people buy products containing IPA and drink them on purpose.
  • IPA is the main ingredient in many household cleaning products. These products are easily available, so some people may choose to drink them or inhale them when they want to commit suicide.

People who take antidepressants may get IPA poisoning more easily than others. Certain antidepressants increase the effects of IPA, so even a small amount can be poisonous. A class of antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) can cause a particularly dangerous reaction.

Children are also more prone to IPA poisoning. They often chew on objects and drink products that they find around the house. This is why it’s important to put anything containing IPA out of the reach of children.

Suicide prevention

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Diagnosing isopropyl alcohol poisoning

Your doctor will perform a physical exam so they can check your vital signs and look for signs of IPA exposure, such as skin damage.

During the exam, your doctor may ask you the following questions:

  • How did the poisoning occur? Did you drink the product or did you spill it on yourself?
  • What was the source? What specific product did you ingest?
  • What was the intent? Was it taken on purpose?
  • What medications are you taking? Was there ethyl alcohol in the product?

Your doctor may also order the following blood tests to help make a diagnosis:

  • a complete blood count (CBC) to look for signs of infection or damage to your blood cells
  • a serum electrolyte level to see if you’re dehydrated
  • a toxicity panel to determine the concentration of IPA in your blood

In some cases, your doctor may run an electrocardiogram (EKG) to assess your heart function.

Treating isopropyl alcohol poisoning

The goal of treatment is to remove the alcohol from your body and to keep your organs working properly. Treatment for IPA poisoning can include:

  • dialysis, which removes IPA and acetone from the blood
  • fluid replacement, which may be used if you’re dehydrated
  • oxygen therapy, which allows your lungs to get rid of IPA more quickly

Preventing IPA poisoning

To prevent poisoning, avoid swallowing any products containing IPA. Among other things, this includes:

  • most household cleaning products
  • paint thinners
  • rubbing alcohol
  • perfumes

Keep these items out of the reach of children.

It’s also important to wear gloves and avoid inhaling fumes when using certain products with IPA, such as cleaning products. People who work in laboratories or factories that use IPA should be particularly cautious as well. Repeated skin exposure to IPA in large amounts can lead to poisoning.

What do I do if I have isopropyl alcohol poisoning?

You should never induce vomiting because this can further damage your esophagus. However, there are steps you should take when you or someone you know has IPA poisoning:

  • Drink plenty of water to help your body flush out the toxin. However, don’t do this if you have symptoms that make it difficult to swallow, such as throat pain or decreased alertness.
  • If the chemical is on your skin or eyes, rinse the area with water for 15 minutes.
  • Call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately.

For more information or direction, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The national hotline number is 800-222-1222. You can also visit their website at aapcc.org.

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