Ethanol Abuse: What You Should Know

By The Fix staff 11/10/21

Ethanol is the active ingredient in many alcoholic beverages, but some people with severe substance use disorder go straight to the source.

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Silhouette of man contemplating drink in hand, with bottle of alcohol in front of him

Most people who have struggled with alcohol abuse can name their poison — maybe beer, or wine, or a cool gin and tonic. Even after you’re in recovery, your drink of choice might come to haunt you now and again. Few people with alcohol use disorder would name ethanol as their drug of choice, but the truth is ethanol is present in all alcohols. Here’s what you should know about ethanol, also known as EtOH, and ethanol addiction.

What is ethanol?

Ethanol refers to an organic chemical compound. In fact, its chemical compound — EtOH — now doubles as a slang or street name. Ethanol is produced when grains or fruits are fermented. That means whether you’re drinking a cold beer or a sophisticated merlot, the effect the drink has on you can be traced back to ethanol. Most people don’t think of ethanol as a psychoactive drug, but it produces brain changes that are positive — like relaxation — and negative, like depressing the respiratory system.

Ethanol is present in all alcoholic drinks, but it is found in plenty of other places as well. In higher concentrations alcohol is used for cleaners (looking at you, hand sanitizer), polishes, cosmetic products, plastic production and much, much more. Ethanol is even found in 97% of gasoline in the United States. Although you probably haven’t thought about ethanol much, chances are you come into contact with products made with ethanol daily — even if you’ve long been sober.

How is ethanol made?

Since ethanol is a naturally-occurring substance, it pops up any time grains or fruits are fermented. Ethanol isn’t added to beer or wine, but it is found within them, in varying concentrations.

For commercial and industrial applications, ethanol is produced by fermenting corn. When the corn is distilled, it results in a liquid that is 10-15% ethanol. This is then boiled down until almost all the water evaporates and the liquid is 95% pure ethanol. Through straining, the remaining water is removed, leaving 100% alcohol behind.

Ethanol and alcohol

Ethanol is pure alcohol. In the alcoholic beverages that people drink, this is measured using the proof system. To calculate this, manufacturers determine how much ethanol is in the beverage: this is known as alcohol by volume (ABV). The proof of the drink is double that amount. For example, a 50 proof alcoholic beverage contains 25% pure ethanol.

This becomes important for people who have alcohol use disorder. As with many substance use disorders, people who misuse alcohol often build tolerance: that is, they need more of the substance in order to feel the effects it has. At the same time, they also develop a physical dependency, meaning that their body needs an every-increasing amount of alcohol just to function normally.

People who have severe alcohol use disorder might find themselves reaching for alcohol that has a higher and higher proof or ABV. In severe cases, this could culminate in people consuming ethanol or products that contain a high concentration of ethanol but are not meant for human consumption.

Even if you do not drink pure ethanol, you can still experience ethanol poisoning from drinking too much alcohol. Symptoms of ethanol poisoning can include stomach pain and vomiting, confusion, slurred speech, impaired function and slowed breathing. If you abuse EtOH frequently, you’re even at risk for organ failure.

Treating EtOH

Treating ethanol addiction can be difficult. By the time a person developed an EtOH addiction or dependence, they are often deep into alcohol use disorder. Alcohol, particularly at high concentrations, can affect nearly every system in the body, including the liver, cardiovascular system, digestive system and nervous system. In addition, living with alcoholism can erode a person’s mental and emotional health, and damage their relationships with loved ones.

That’s why it is critical to get professional treatment for EtOH addiction. Treatment providers who are experienced at treating ethanol addiction will know how to address the physical, mental and emotional impacts of this disease. A treatment program that is highly individualized can help you understand why you are prone to misusing alcohol and change your patterns.

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