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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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