Alcohol is the primary active ingredient in some of the most popular drinks on the planet. Beer, wine, spirits, and liquors all contain varying amounts of alcohol. They all cause the well-known state of alcohol intoxication or "drunkenness." The chemical name of the drinking alcohol we all know and love is ethyl alcohol or ethanol. But ethanol is only one of the many types of alcohol found in nature. Learn more about the four major kinds of alcohol and their uses and effects.
1. Isopropyl alcohol
Isopropyl alcohol, or isopropanol, is made from propylene gas and has strong disinfecting properties. Rubbing alcohol is diluted or watered-down isopropanol. Isopropyl alcohol is a common ingredient in cleaning products and works especially well for sterilization. It is most frequently used for household cleaning purposes like disinfecting electronics, cleaning stainless steel, refreshing sponges, and cleaning makeup brushes. Thanks to its natural anti-bacterial properties, isopropyl alcohol can also be used medically as an antiseptic. It is also useful when inhaled, providing relief from postoperative nausea. Isopropanol is entirely unsafe for drinking and can cause severe toxic effects if swallowed in large quantities. Symptoms of isopropyl alcohol poisoning include flushing, vomiting, low blood pressure, respiratory depression, and dizziness.
2. Methyl alcohol
Methyl alcohol, methanol, or wood alcohol is most commonly used in manufacturing processes. It is an industrial-strength solvent used to make products such as paint removers, antifreeze, and printing ink. Methanol is also a commercially important base reactant used to produce compounds like acetone, methane, and formaldehyde. These byproducts can then be used to manufacture everything from plastics to explosives. Methanol and its vapors are highly flammable and require special care for use and transportation. Although methanol has an odor and appearance similar to ethanol, it is more extremely toxic. Ingesting as little as 10 mL can result in permanent blindness, and 30 mL can induce coma or cause death. To keep people from drinking ethanol intended for industrial use, small quantities of methanol are often added to it. This creates denatured (or contaminated) alcohol that is poisonous to the human body.
Ethyl alcohol or ethanol is the chemical name of the essence found in all alcoholic beverages. It is the only type of alcohol that is safe for consumption. While it can be used as a fuel additive or as an industrial solvent, it is most commonly used for recreational purposes because of its distinct effect on mood and behavior. It depresses the central nervous system by enhancing the impact of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. The drunkenness caused by alcohol exhibits effects like euphoria, happiness, increased sociability, and decreased anxiety. It also exhibits impairment of memory, cognition, and motor and sensory functions.
Yeast or bacteria chemically convert sugars into ethanol through the process of fermentation. Sugars that are used to produce ethanol can come from barley, wheat, grapes, or other grains and fruits depending on the type of drink being created. Fermented beverages can be drunk directly, or can be further distilled to a higher alcohol percentage. All alcoholic drinks can be divided into two broad categories based on their manufacturing processes:
3. Undistilled ethanol
Undistilled or fermented alcohol only goes through the fermentation process and is not clarified or refined in any way. There are hundreds of types of undistilled alcoholic drinks but the most popular ones are beer, wine, and cider. They mainly differ in the crop or fruit used as the base and the variety of yeast used for fermentation. Slight differences in the soil composition or weather in the area of production can also cause changes in the drinks' flavors. Fermented beverages do not exceed 15% alcohol by volume unless they have been modified externally.
4. Distilled ethanol
Distilled alcohol is fermented ethanol that has been put through a distillation or purification process. This is done to increase the alcohol by volume (ABV) ratio of the beverages. The distillation process separates the alcohol from the fermented brew so that it becomes much more concentrated. Distilled drinks usually range from 20% to 70% ABV. Although it is possible to distill spirits to 95%, most drinks are about 40% ABV. Vodka, gin, brandy, whiskey, rum, and tequila are some of the best-known distilled drinks. Because of their high alcohol content, it might be necessary to mix distilled drinks with water, soft drinks, or fruit juices to make them more palatable.
Alcohol is known to have a range of harmful effects on short-term and long-term health. Alcohol consumption can have serious consequences especially if taken in large quantities or with a heavy frequency. Because of its psychoactive effects, regular alcohol use can quickly become addictive. If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, reach out to a healthcare provider to learn about treatment and recovery options.
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Osterhoudt, K. Toxic Alcohols, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Elsevier, 2008 Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior: "GABA(A) receptors and alcohol."
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): "Methanol: Systemic Agent."
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