Rubbing Alcohol Only Looks Like Water

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The Bottom Line

Rubbing alcohol looks like water. Even small amounts are poisonous to children. It is also poisonous to adults, who sometimes substitute rubbing alcohol for drinking alcohol. Rubbing alcohol can also be toxic when inhaled. It should be used in a well-ventilated area. In addition, because it is flammable, it should always be kept away from open flame. 

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The Full Story

A busy day is now an even busier evening. You rush to prepare dinner while also keeping an eye on your toddler. Together, you're reciting the names of some animals. Suddenly, you sense that the room is a little too quiet. You turn and see him bringing a bottle of rubbing alcohol to his mouth. He takes a sip like he would out of a water bottle! You drop everything you're doing and run over to him. How in the world was he able to reach over the counter where the bottle was? And how did he manage to open the cap? The face he makes tells you he hates the taste. But, he did drink a mouthful of it. What do you do now?

Rubbing alcohol is a very common household item. You can buy it in any drug or grocery store. It is very effective in killing bacteria; in many households, it is the go-to item to clean minor cuts and scrapes. It is colorless, flammable and has a very strong odor of alcohol.

The main ingredient of rubbing alcohol is isopropyl alcohol (or Isopropanol). Rubbing alcohol is commonly 70% isopropyl alcohol, but the percentage ranges from 60% to 99% isopropyl alcohol. Other than rubbing alcohol used for first aid, isopropyl alcohol can also be found in other products such as hand sanitizers, glass and jewelry cleaners, stain removers, and other household disinfectants. The internet also abounds with DIY uses for isopropyl alcohol such as using it as a solvent to clean furniture and carpet, enhance art projects, and even to tie dye clothing. One myth that used to be quite common is that rubbing alcohol can be applied to the skin to lower a fever – this is NOT TRUE and can actually be quite dangerous, especially for small children.

Poison Control is often called about children who drank a sip of rubbing alcohol. Sometimes, they drink it by mistake after it is poured into a cup or water bottle. Because it tastes so strong, they usually don't drink much. In general, swallowing such small amounts of rubbing alcohol leads to very few symptoms. The most common symptoms from a small, unintentional ingestion may include nausea, vomiting, or stomach upset.

Isopropyl alcohol is different from the alcohol found in liquor, beer and wine. That kind of alcohol is known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Rubbing alcohol is sometimes abused, even though it is not meant to be swallowed. It is cheaper than liquor, widely available, and can cause a feeling of intoxication. However, isopropyl alcohol is much more potent than ethyl alcohol and can lead to serious problems if ingested inappropriately.

Someone who swallows isopropyl alcohol may appear drunk. Effects include sedation, slurred speech, unsteadiness when walking, and vomiting. Isopropyl alcohol is also extremely irritating to the digestive tract. Drinking a lot of it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, pain, and bleeding in the stomach and intestines. This can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure, shock, and coma.

Rubbing alcohol can also be toxic when inhaled. It should be used in a well-ventilated area. In addition, because it is flammable, it should always be kept away from open flame.

In the never-ending battle to stay one step ahead of your toddler, here are a few tips to help you win (or at least catch up) and prevent poisoning from rubbing alcohol:

  • Always keep rubbing alcohol stored up and out of reach of children.
  • Never transfer it from its original bottle to another container.
  • Always use rubbing alcohol in a well-ventilated area.
  • Never swallow rubbing alcohol to get drunk. It is not the same as ethanol! Drinking it can cause dangerous poisoning.

Use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool or call Poison Control right away if someone swallows rubbing alcohol. Do not try to make the person throw up! Do not wait to see what will happen! 

Serkalem Mekonnen, RN, BSN, MPH
Certified Specialist in Poison Information

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Always keep rubbing alcohol stored up and out of reach of children.
  • Never transfer it from its original bottle to another container.
  • Always use rubbing alcohol in a well-ventilated area.
  • Never swallow rubbing alcohol to get drunk. It is not the same as ethanol! Drinking it can cause dangerous poisoning.

This Really Happened

A 16-month-old child got into a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He drank an unknown amount of the liquid and spilled it all over his face and into his eyes. When Poison Control was called, the child was drowsy and stumbling. His eyes were very red and irritated; he was rubbing them vigorously and screaming. The ambulance was called and the child was taken to the emergency room.

In the emergency room, he vomited and remained sleepy. After putting special lenses in the child's eyes, the physician irrigated them with normal saline solution. During this uncomfortable procedure, the child became very agitated and irritable. Over the next 2 hours, he became alert and was discharged home. By the following day, the child's eyes were back to normal. He didn't require any other treatment.

The product was 50% isopropyl alcohol. A poisonous dose for this child was only about two teaspoons.


For More Information

Discussion of isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol) (MedlinePlus)

References

Griffis, T. 18 Incredible Rubbing Alcohol Uses. One Crazy House. 2020. Accessed Jun 2 2021.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Always keep rubbing alcohol stored up and out of reach of children.
  • Never transfer it from its original bottle to another container.
  • Always use rubbing alcohol in a well-ventilated area.
  • Never swallow rubbing alcohol to get drunk. It is not the same as ethanol! Drinking it can cause dangerous poisoning.

This Really Happened

A 16-month-old child got into a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He drank an unknown amount of the liquid and spilled it all over his face and into his eyes. When Poison Control was called, the child was drowsy and stumbling. His eyes were very red and irritated; he was rubbing them vigorously and screaming. The ambulance was called and the child was taken to the emergency room.

In the emergency room, he vomited and remained sleepy. After putting special lenses in the child's eyes, the physician irrigated them with normal saline solution. During this uncomfortable procedure, the child became very agitated and irritable. Over the next 2 hours, he became alert and was discharged home. By the following day, the child's eyes were back to normal. He didn't require any other treatment.

The product was 50% isopropyl alcohol. A poisonous dose for this child was only about two teaspoons.