Ethyl alcohol, CH3CH2OH, also commonly referred to as ethanol or grain alcohol, is a clear, colorless liquid with a characteristic, agreeable odor. In dilute aqueous solution, it has a somewhat sweet flavor, but in more concentrated solutions it has a burning taste. Ethanol is a group of chemical compounds whose molecules contain a hydroxyl group, –OH, bonded to a carbon atom. 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.
Early medical uses of ethanol 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 for ethanol is commonly known and often conjures images of war with physicians giving patients a shot of whiskey before performing surgery or removing limbs injured in battle.
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 into the bloodstream where they typically become toxic to the body.
More modern uses for ethyl alcohol include using it for antiseptic purposes, most commonly in antiseptic wipes and hand sanitizers. It is effective at killing most bacteria, fungi, and many viruses on the hands and skin and is a useful alternative to hand soaps. Medical professionals often use gel sanitizers before treating patients to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.
Physicians also used to prescribe ethanol as a form of antidepressant, due to its effects on the brain. Modern physicians now understand that alcohol consumed in an effort to numb uncomfortable feelings eventually leads to a dependency and addiction. In fact, ethyl alcohol is a depressant rather than the opposite, and can lead to depressive thoughts and feelings with extended use.
When ingested, ethyl alcohol 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 of ethyl alcohol may cause serious liver damage and depression, as well as leading to alcohol dependency.