Alcohol use disorder (AUD), the current clinical name for alcoholism, is a chronic illness involving changes to brain chemistry and brain structures due to the consistent, high-volume, compulsive consumption of alcohol. There are many symptoms of AUD, and one of them is developing a physical tolerance to alcohol, which leads to drinking more to achieve the initial level of intoxication. Eventually, the person will come to develop a dependence on alcohol to feel normal. The combination of dependence and tolerance may lead to rapidly escalating alcohol consumption, switching from beer to hard liquor, or finding other ways to increase the experience of being drunk.
Some people mix alcohol with benzodiazepines, opioids, or sedatives to increase their level of intoxication. Recently, the fad of inhaling alcohol – smoking or vaping a shot or two of liquor – swept across the United States. When other drugs are smoked or vaporized and inhaled, they enter the bloodstream faster, which means they can bind to brain receptors more quickly. While this is technically also true of alcohol, the process does not create the experience of being drunk, and it can still lead to overdose and physical harm from too much alcohol in the blood.
A Detrimental Trend
Originally, vaporizing and inhaling alcohol gained attention in the 1950s to treat pulmonary edema, the excessive buildup of fluid in the lungs. Since other effective treatments for this condition have been developed, inhaling alcohol steam or vapor is no longer practiced.
Around 2004, a device called alcohol without liquid (AWOL) launched in Europe, gained popularity there, and it eventually came over to the United States. Once the practice became popular in the U.S., however, it became apparent that the dangers outweighed the benefits and the AWOL device was banned.
About a decade later, vaping or smoking alcohol became popular again with concepts like the Vaportini or the Vapshot, which heat up alcohol so it vaporizes and can be inhaled. Dangerously, the whole point of smoking, vaporizing, or otherwise inhaling alcohol fumes is specifically to get drunk faster and without as much stomach-filling liquid or calories.
When alcohol is inhaled, it does not get metabolized by the liver, and molecules of pure alcohol instead enter the bloodstream without any filtering. They move through the alveolar membrane as oxygen or other particles in the lungs do, and they are transported to the brain. However, because alcohol has not been metabolized through the liver to other molecules like acetic acid, the experience of being drunk will not be as intense. Instead, people who have vaporized alcohol report feeling dizzy or lightheaded, but not drunk.
- Devices vaporize alcohol through heat (small candles) or push it through filtration systems.
- E-cigarettes or similar devices have homemade alcohol-containing attachments.
- Asthma nebulizers can vaporize alcohol.
- Pouring alcohol over hot coals can create a vapor.
- Pouring alcohol over dry ice or carbon dioxide pills is a technique also used to inhale alcohol.
Reported Health Benefits of Vaping Alcohol Are Myths
While some people tout these devices as more health-conscious, they were created as a form of bingeing on alcohol, which can be incredibly dangerous. While the assumption is that beverages with higher alcohol content will cause more intoxication when inhaled, this is also not true. Reports suggest that vaping beer, at 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) leads to feeling more intoxicated than vaping vodka, which is about 40 percent ABV.
Additionally, vaping or smoking alcohol does not technically save calories. Taking this intoxicating liquid in any form still leads to calories being absorbed by the body. Carbohydrates in the form of sugars will not be processed as calories when alcohol is inhaled, but the calories in alcohol itself will be.
The alleged health benefits of vaping alcohol are myths, but the dangers of inhaling this potent intoxicant are very real. Hazards from vaping include:
- Damage to the lungs
- Higher risk of lung infections such as pneumonia
- Trouble eliminating alcohol from the body
- Brain damage from alcohol rapidly binding to brain receptors
- Greater risk of alcohol poisoning
What Happens If You Vape Alcohol?
If you are wondering if you can vape alcohol, the answer is you can. However, you cannot vape it safely. The alleged health benefits of vaping alcohol are myths. You should be aware that the dangers of inhaling this potent intoxicant are very real. Hazards from vaping include:
Vaping alcohol involves inhaling heated vapors that irritate or harm the lungs. As Johns Hopkins Medicine explains, vaping coats the lungs with potentially harmful chemicals. You may be surprised to learn that Vitamin E is one of these irritants. It is safe to take Vitamin E by mouth or use it topically on the skin. But the ingredient, which is added to a mix of chemicals as a thickening agent, is an irritant that has been found in the lungs of people who have suffered severe damage from chronic vaping.
Over time, you may find it hard to breathe if you vape alcohol. You also could be at higher risk of contracting a lung infection, such as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs). Signs of lung damage include coughing, wheezing, chest pain, and shortness of breath.
Trouble eliminating alcohol from the body
Vaporizing alcohol puts you at risk of encountering problems with how your body metabolizes the drug. As the Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership from Duke University explains, the body is designed to stop the effects of drugs and alcohol so that intoxication doesn’t continue after a person stops drinking. However, since vaporizing alcohol skips the liver’s metabolism process, danger awaits.
When alcohol enters the body the usual way, it is metabolized in two stages, as the partnership explains. This two-stage process happens because metabolism “turns off” the drug’s action and converts the substance into a water-soluble form. This allows the drug to more easily pass to the bloodstream and then to the kidneys. The first stage is turning ethanol (alcohol) into acetaldehyde, which takes place mainly in the liver. Some of the processes take place in the stomach, too. The second stage is acetaldehyde to acetic acid, which takes place in the liver.
The liver can only process 1 ounce of alcohol per hour. When the body cannot process alcohol efficiently, alcohol poisoning results. We cover that in more detail in the next section.
Brain damage from alcohol rapidly binding to brain receptors
Vaping only increases the amount of alcohol in the body, and it’s more than the body can handle. That’s because vaporizing alcohol overwhelms the brain when it rapidly binds to the organ’s receptors. Chronic alcohol use can change the structure and functioning of the brain, which can seriously impair brain development in adolescents. Unfortunately, these brain changes and the serious consequences of substance abuse can make themselves known much later down the line when the problems have become severe and perhaps permanent.
Dangers of Smoking Alcohol Lead to Serious Harm
Since alcohol was not consumed through the stomach, the body’s natural poison-eliminating reflex – vomiting – will not work to stop alcohol from being processed in the blood and brain. This can quickly lead to poisoning without much intoxication. Consuming alcohol differently, especially by inhaling it, can cause a deadly overdose with specific symptoms.
- Respiratory depression and stopped breathing
- Pale skin or bluish skin color
- Hypothermia or low body temperature
- Vomiting while unconscious
You should call 911 if you or someone you know has overdosed on alcohol. This serious condition can lead to death if not treated right away.
While you are waiting for the paramedics to arrive, here are some things you should never do when alcohol overdose has occurred:
- Do not let someone “sleep it off.” Even if someone is sleeping, alcohol continues to rise in the bloodstream.
- Do not give the person a caffeinated drink, such as coffee or soda. These beverages dehydrate the body. Extreme dehydration can permanently damage the brain.
- Do not encourage vomiting. A person can choke on their own vomit.
- Do not let someone take a cold shower. Exposing someone to cold water only increases a person’s exposure to hypothermia when alcohol already lowers the body’s temperature.
- More alcohol-seeking behaviors presented with repeated inhaling.
- Anxiety increased in the rats.
- The brains of the rats changed faster.
- Rats who were forced to stop inhaling alcohol experienced more intense withdrawal symptoms.
The addictive potential of vaping or smoking alcohol is unknown. Typically, the faster a drug reaches the brain, the faster addiction develops; however, alcohol inhalation is not well-studied in humans. Anecdotal evidence suggests that alcohol inhalation is more likely to cause poisoning, acute harm, and chronic health problems with the lungs. It is not likely to lead to significant intoxication that would otherwise contribute to compulsive behaviors.
Other Signs of Alcoholism Indicate Need For Help
- Spending a lot of time drinking
- Getting sick often from drinking too much
- Continuing to drink even though relationships with family and friends are harmed
- Cutting back on activities or hobbies specifically to drink
- Trying to cut down or stop drinking but feeling unable to
Working with a physician or therapist to diagnose a potential alcohol use disorder can lead you to detox and rehabilitation programs to overcome this illness. If you find you vaporize or smoke a lot of alcohol as a way to get more into your bloodstream compared to drinking, you are at high risk of damaging your lungs and brain, and suffering from alcohol poisoning that could lead to death. Get evidence-based treatment to stop these compulsive behaviors.