Inhaling alcohol vapor puts you at risk of overdose

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Instead of drinking alcohol, some people are opting to "smoke" it -- and it's making doctors nervous.

"Because it's new and novel, people don't think about the safety of it," Dr. Deni Carise, the deputy chief clinical officer for CRC Health Group, told CBSNews.com.

Some circulating YouTube videos depict people inhaling alcohol fumes as a quick way to get drunk, and the practice has also popped up as a calorie-conscious alternative to drinking.

One user told WFAA that he enjoyed smoking alcohol because it was a way for him to drink without gaining back the 80 pounds he had previously loss.

"I figured I could have my cake and eat it, too," Texas man Broderic Allen said.

Alcohol can be turned into "smoke" or vapor in a variety of ways, Carise, who is also an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania's department of psychiatry, explained. Some people drop a carbon dioxide pill into container with alcohol, pour alcohol over dry ice or pump pressurized air into a bottle of liquor. All three methods result in inhalable alcohol vapor.

On the surface, smoked alcohol may seem attractive to users. None of the alcohol is metabolized by the stomach, and it goes directly to the brain and bloodstream. This results in a shorter, but faster feeling of intoxication. In addition, because the alcohol doesn't go through the digestive system, the person doesn't get the calories from the beverage.

"Anything that goes into the bloodstream quicker is going to give you a quicker effect," Carise explained.

Carise pointed out that this method may also be employed by alcoholics who have eroded their stomach lining after years of heavy drinking, because inhaling allows them to feel the effects of getting drunk without having to deal with their stomach issues.

However, the practice is very dangerous. Because the alcohol bypasses the stomach and liver, it is in a more concentrated form when it enters the body. This makes it substantially easier to overdose on alcohol, she said.

When you inhale alcohol, the body isn't able to use one of its natural protections from alcohol poisoning -- vomiting. Because alcohol does not go through your stomach during inhalation, excessive amounts will not trigger nausea. Also, while you can physically see how much you are drinking, it's tough to tell how much alcohol you are consuming when taking it in through vapor.

That's not to mention the toll on the lungs and respiratory system. Alcohol can dry out nasal passages, which makes the person prone to infections, Dr. Harris Stratyner, regional clinical vice president of Caron Treatment Centers in New York, told the New York Daily News.

"This is a stupid, highly dangerous thing to do," he said. "The fact that youngsters in particular can purchase the equipment for a relatively cheap price...this has to be made illegal."

Carise doesn't know how prevalent smoking alcohol is, but because it's growing in popularity, she fears that more people might be tempted to try it. She feels that adolescents may be most vulnerable because they think it's a "cool" way to drink, not realizing it can have terrifying consequences.

"I think it's amazing the extents people will go through to feel differently," she said.

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