Vintage ethanol (ethyl-alcohol) bottle on a seamless black background.

What’s a quick way to both hide and soften an addiction issue? For many people, language is the answer. By swapping out a drug’s formal name with a term that’s playful, they can talk about the addiction openly without worry of detection. That seemingly playful term can also make a powerful drug seem a little less capable of causing harm.

Consider the term EtOH. This term is derived from the chemical abbreviation for ethyl alcohol, and it’s used as a synonym for alcoholic beverages. Someone who might balk at the idea of drinking a great deal of wine or beer, or who might live with parents or partners who would object to binge drinking, might use this term to make alcohol abuse feel more acceptable.

Regardless of the terminology used to describe it, alcohol abuse is dangerous. But there’s a lot people can do to get better when an addiction does take hold.

Ethanol or Alcohol: What’s the Difference?

Ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, is a pure form of alcohol distilled from grain substances. In its pure form, it can be used as an antiseptic or cleaning agent. For example, Kohl Industries provides medical facilities with a hand sanitizer that contains 70% ethyl alcohol.

Medical professionals can rub a dollop of this substance between their palms to kill bacteria that might move from doctor to patient during an exam. This could be an ideal solution in older facilities that don’t offer enough handwashing options for doctors. They can use this substance instead, and they can keep their patients safer as a result.

This is just one industrial use for ethanol, and it isn’t uncommon to see this substance in offices, medical facilities, and other workplaces. The substance may be useful, but it isn’t completely benign. In fact, in its pure form, ethanol is considered a hazardous substance in the workplace. The New Jersey Department of Health reports, for example, that inhaling ethanol can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. Also, the department reports that exposure to ethanol can cause headaches, nausea, and drowsiness.

When modern users talk about EtOH, they’re rarely discussing pure ethanol. Instead, they’re discussing drinks that contain a bit of alcohol mixed with other inert substances. This form of alcohol is much more palatable, so it’s easier to drink. This type of alcohol is also slightly less dangerous. The dilution helps to tamp down some of the more serious risks that come with the first sip.

The amount of alcohol in an alcoholic beverage is typically displayed as a percentage (alcohol by volume, or ABV). Bottles of beer and wine typically have this percentage printed right on the label, as do bottles of vodka, whiskey, and other forms of alcohol.

In a study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, various types of alcohol were examined, and the ABV rates between different manufacturers were determined. These are just a few of the average ABVs the researchers discovered by beverage type:

  • Beer: 5.1%
  • Wine: 13.3%
  • Brandy: 37.5%
  • Gin: 40.8%
  • Scotch: 41%
  • Grain alcohol: 91.1%

As this research demonstrates, the amount of alcohol can vary dramatically, depending on the substance the person chooses to drink. People who drink beer or wine are taking in a relatively low amount of ethanol with each sip they take, while those who drink gin are taking in a much bigger amount. People who choose to drink pure grain alcohol are taking in an immense amount with each sip.

These percentages matter, because ABV provides a glimpse into how much ethanol exposure the person is facing during a night of drinking. The more ethanol in each sip, the more damage done. People who want to reduce risk may, in order to stay in control, choose to drink only low-alcohol drinks, but that may not always be easy to do.

People who choose mixed drinks may struggle to understand just how much alcohol they are taking in with each sip. For example, someone who orders a martini made with gin is relying on the person making the drink to supply a specific proportion of gin to ice to mixer. A heavy hand on the pour could lead to a more potent drink. That could lead to a level of intoxication the person simply did not expect. Similarly, there are variations in ABV from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some forms of wine, for example, may have much higher levels of alcohol than other forms. The only way to know for sure is to read the label, and that’s a step some people choose to skip.

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When Drinking EtOH Is Dangerous

Filling the glasses with alcohol.

Alcohol is built into many aspects of modern life. Families raise glasses of champagne to toast couples after a wedding. Friends meet for a drink during happy hour after work. People crack open bottles of beer to watch sporting events. Celebrations and get-togethers are often fueled by sips of alcohol.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that there is a form of drinking that puts people at low risk for developing an alcohol use disorder. Women who follow this pattern drink no more than three alcoholic beverages in a single day, and they drink no more than seven drinks per week. Men who follow this pattern drink no more than four drinks on a single day, and they take in no more than 14 alcoholic beverages per week.

Women and men metabolize alcohol differently, so the recommendations vary by gender. This is not a cultural difference as much as a physiological difference.

People who drink in this manner may not drink every day, and they may not drink very much when they do engage in drinking. For them, alcohol is an infrequent part of the diet. They may never, at this level, engage in a form of drinking that could be considered abusive.

But there are some people who engage in this low-risk form of drinking on a regular basis who may still engage in drinking patterns that are far from healthy on an occasional basis. Binge drinking, which the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines as women drinking four or more alcoholic beverages and men drinking five or more within about two hours, can do intense damage.

Binge drinking is typically characterized by people who are drinking alcohol with the express purpose of intoxication. These are people who may gather friends and family members with the purpose of abusing EtOH. After a night of binge drinking, someone like this is at a higher risk of:

  • Physical altercations
  • Tripping and falling
  • Wrecking a car
  • Engaging in unprotected sex

Alcohol can lower the functioning of the portion of the brain responsible for calculating risk and reward. This portion of the brain is like the body’s parent. It keeps people from doing things that just aren’t safe. When this part of the brain is not functioning at an optimal level, people can make terrible decisions without seeing the risks clearly. Their inhibitions drop.

Binge drinking is almost always considered dangerous, just because it can cause so many difficulties in such a short period of time. As a result, binge drinking is considered a symptom of an alcohol use disorder. Other symptoms, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, include:

  • An inability to stop drinking for even a few days
  • A need to keep drinking once an episode of drinking begins
  • A need for a morning drink to start the day
  • Friends and family members suggesting alcoholism could be at play
  • Annoyance at criticism of drinking patterns
  • Memory loss after drinking

Someone like this may start an abusive drinking pattern and not realize how dangerous it is. Understanding the damage alcohol can cause could, in some cases, help people to take control of the way they drink.

The Real Risk of EtOH Addiction

Alcohol can impact the cells of the brain, lowering inhibitions and increasing the chance that someone will take dangerous risks. This isn’t the only damage alcohol can cause.

NIAAA reports that alcohol can also cause damage to:

  • The heart. Binge drinking or long-term alcohol abuse can lead to irregular heartbeat, stroke, high blood pressure, or stretching of heart muscle tissue.
  • The liver. Alcohol is processed by the liver, and heavy drinking can cause liver cell death or stiffening.
  • The pancreas. Alcohol can cause inflammation of this organ, which can lead to poor digestion.
  • The immune system. Binge drinking or chronic drinking can slow down the function of the immune system, raising the risk for disease.

Alcohol abuse has also been associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer. The body parts that touch alcohol, including the mouth, esophagus, and throat are at unique risk.

Alcohol abuse can also lead to alcohol dependence. People who experience dependence may feel a very strong urge to drink, even if they know drinking isn’t right for them. People like this may also experience symptoms of withdrawal, like shaking, if they don’t drink alcohol.

American About 18 million adults have an alcohol use disorder, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine. For people like this, their use and abuse of alcohol cause real harm. People like this may struggle to stop consuming alcohol without help from a treatment program.

Recovery from Alcohol Addiction

young white male physician speaking with older male white patient

The impact of alcohol can be persistent. Long-term abuse of alcohol can change electrical circuitry in the brain, amending the signals the brain cells use in order to communicate. These cells may rely on the new signals, and they may malfunction when no alcohol is present. That can lead to alcohol withdrawal, and Mayo Clinic reports that it can cause hallucinations, restlessness, and even seizures.

Given that these symptoms can be severe and even life-threatening, it’s not wise for people with an alcohol abuse problem to quit cold turkey. Instead, people with an alcohol addiction should enroll in a medical detox program.

During alcohol medical detox, people are offered medications to soothe the damage alcohol can cause. People are also provided with medical monitoring, so doctors can step in if withdrawal symptoms begin to grow severe. That can allow people to achieve sobriety without running the risk of experiencing very difficult side effects.

After medical detox, rehabilitation can begin. This is often provided in an inpatient setting, which allows the person to move away from familiar surroundings that may spur a return to alcohol abuse. In a controlled environment, people won’t be tempted to get or drink alcohol, and they can focus on developing healthy patterns that can keep them safe from future temptations.

For example, someone may enroll in treatment with a long history of abuse that began in an office setting. For this person, spending time chatting with coworkers was uncomfortable. Adding alcohol seemed to help. In time, the person was drinking on the job, and job loss followed.

In therapy, the person might come to understand that social anxiety can be addressed without alcohol. When asked to mingle with a crowd of people, the person might learn to:

  • Talk to just one person at a time.
  • Use positive self-talk, to remind them that the interactions are going well.
  • Use breathing exercises if anxiety begins to rise.
  • Leave the interaction for frequent rest breaks, either in the restroom or in a hallway.

This is the kind of therapy that can help people change the way they think about themselves and the world around them. It can lead to very remarkable changes.

In time, some of the effects of alcohol can be reversed. For example, a researcher quoted in TIME suggests that alcohol-induced brain changes can reverse course during sobriety. People may experience a greater ability to solve problems, remember details, and pay attention when they remain sober. They may feel better than they have in years.

Abstinence can also help people repair relationship damage caused by alcohol. People can address old harms and ills, and they can form stronger ties that aren’t broken by alcohol abuse.

Healing like this is possible, and it begins with an admission that alcohol abuse is a problem. That’s the first step on the road to wellness.

It’s Never Too Late to Get Help