Self-medication with booze - good idea?
October 15, 2012 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Does alcohol ("booze") have medicinal properties? what illnesses might it help? (Or is this just a myth?)

I have heard mention of alcohol having medicinal properties; that some folks might use neat spirits to treat infections (fever etc.) or GI issues, the notion being that alcohol has antiseptic properties, and in fact is a component of some medicines too (like cough syrup).

Is there any medical evidence for this? Or does anyone have anecdotal evidence that it helps? Or this this just a fable & myth?

posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
For whatever anecdotal evidence is worth, I've used whiskey and rum hot toddies for years to combat coughs and soothe sore throats. I'm not sure that the effect is anything more than the good feeling of hot liquid, but it certainly tastes better then OTC cough syrups. My dad swears by Irish Mist (honeyed whiskey) for the same thing - taking small sips throughout the night to kill the tickle in the throat.

It seems to work, though I think it's just because it tends to relieve some of the discomfort. As far as actually speeding recovery or killing the infection, I'm skeptical.
posted by jquinby at 7:11 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

My dad claims that whenever he gets a cold he has himself a big old dose of Vitamin Cognac and his colds never last more than a day or two (although he readily admits that that day or two is pretty terrible). While I am entirely skeptical that this ought to work, it's true that he really does get over colds faster than the rest of our family.

I doubt any real clinical studies on this exist, though; hard liquor is bad for you in so many other ways that most doctors would rather not give their patients any excuse to drink it.
posted by town of cats at 7:18 AM on October 15, 2012

I've used a glass of red wine before bed as symptom management for the common cold. Obvoiusly it doesn't 'heal' you but it makes you feel less crappy. Just like the OTC medicines out there...
posted by The Toad at 7:22 AM on October 15, 2012

Well, it's a vasodilator, which is by some definitions a "medicinal property". Certainly vasodilators can contribute to the aforementioned relief of discomfort from colds; they can make your muscles relax (of course, they can also trigger migraines).

But I'm not a doctor or in anyway schooled in how substances affect the body, so I don't really know any more than that.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:23 AM on October 15, 2012

Alcohol has lots of medicinal quantities. At high concentrations it's a pretty good antiseptic when applied topically, though it also burns healthy tissue to some extent. Ingested, it's a central nervous system depressant among other things. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive rundown on what it can do.

From a physiological and emotional standpoint it's also physically addicting and a truly horrible drug to abuse. Lots of people end up very badly off from doing just that, frequently after using alcohol to self-medicate anxiety.

In general, using recreational drugs to self-medicate for chronic conditions usually ends up doing more harm than good.
posted by flabdablet at 7:28 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, some guy on the street once told me to mix whisky with Jamacian Blue coffee for a cold. I tried it and it knocked the cold out of the park.

I also soothe a cracked rib with a nip of whisky at night with my doctor's blessing. She prefers any side effects from the night cap to the side effects (and cost) of prescriptions. She's pretty cool.
posted by mibo at 7:29 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

A big part of the medical effect of alcohol is psychosomatic/placebo. The magical properties of evaporation and tingling makes people think something is happening which does help. However, sometimes the actual effects are in opposition to what is medically required like mouthwashes where the feeling of freshness actually contributes to oral dehydration and more bad breath.
posted by srboisvert at 7:29 AM on October 15, 2012

Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) has been used as a treatment for ethylene glycol (antifreeze) poisoning. Although they usually use a diluted mixture of lab grade ethanol strong whiskey or vodka is sometimes used instead.
posted by tommasz at 7:41 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're mainly concerned about alcohol "taken internally", but I figured I'd throw this into the mix: Cecil Adams did a column not too long ago on whether liquor is effective as a topical antiseptic. Conclusion: yes for distilled liquors, no for wine.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:52 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Historically we have used alcohol as a (poor) painkiller.
posted by deathpanels at 8:11 AM on October 15, 2012

Nyquil contains some amount of alcohol, though I suspect it's the active ingredients that do the most good.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:15 AM on October 15, 2012

Milk, whiskey and sugar (or honey) will generally send me off into a lovely deep sleep. I've also noticed that when I have a nip of whiskey after roller derby practice, I'm much more relaxed, fall asleep faster (training ends at 8:30 pm and I'm generally in bed, lights out, two hours later), and ache less the next day. So I suppose that's the depressant qualities harnessed.
posted by kalimac at 8:26 AM on October 15, 2012

There is something called medicinal sake, but I'm not really sure about the health benefits.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 8:28 AM on October 15, 2012

There is some data to support that alcohol can help Huntington's disease patients with certain symptoms of the disease.

From this study

But recently use of alcohol has been reported to possibly slow down the course of HD.[3] Thus, the role of alcohol in HD remains controversial. We report a patient with a family history of HD, who manifested movement disorder and behavioral problems under alcohol use and withdrawal, but not during abstinence.

The citation is from "Myers RH, Sax DS, Koroshetz WS et al : Factors associated with slow progression in Huntington's Disease. Arch Neurol 1991; 48 : 800-804."
posted by kuanes at 8:35 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I use alcohol hand rub multiple times a day (it may or may not be ethanol; it varies between products and I don't generally read the bottle). It actually better at killing microbes on hands which are not visibly soiled than standard soap and water. While not standard practice where I am, there is research that using acohol hand gel may be a more effective decontamination prior to surgery than antimicrobial soap and water.

On to internal medicine: It's an effective medication for Benign Essential Tremor. It may be as effective as benzodiazepines as an anxiolytic.

However, its poor side-effect profile means that the only place you'll find it used in medicine is (as mentioned above) certain types of poisoning. Whisky is used locally, but I do live in Scotland!
posted by Coobeastie at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2012

A doctor has told me that alcohol is as good a muscle relaxant as we have, so that if you have muscle aches or cramps, a couple of units of alcohol and a hot bath are legitimate treatment. However, as he says, doctors are hesitant to recommend it because it's a problem for some people (and they don't necessarily know which ones).

In older literature (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) it's standard practice to administer brandy to someone who's had a shock. The closest analogue to this I've experienced suggests it can work.
posted by zadcat at 9:58 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My grandmother from Germany always told us Jaegermeister was medicinal. It was originally a cough remedy. I've never tested that, but here is a link to Wikipedia
posted by smalls at 11:10 AM on October 15, 2012

Just What The Doctor Ordered is a 2005 Smithsonian article about medical beer.
posted by Rash at 11:19 AM on October 15, 2012

1) Fernet Branca and other bitters are a traditional and very effective remedy for digestive upset, esp. trapped gas, although it's due as much to the medicinal properties of the herbs used in the preparation as much as the muscle relaxing properties of the alcohol itself. I can't believe we're this far into the discussion and nobody had mentioned bitters! We're never without it in my family.
2) Common wisdom has it that when eating food of dubious safety, you can reduce your chances of digestive upset by drinking beer along with it. No idea if it's true.
3) And then there's the hot toddy. I guess I don't have to say I'm a fan.
posted by HotToddy at 11:35 AM on October 15, 2012

Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) has been used as a treatment for ethylene glycol (antifreeze) poisoning.

Yep. They have to keep you good and drunk for a number of hours to prevent toxicity while your body gets rid of the ethylene glycol. This may be apocryphal, but I heard from a guy at poison control that there have been cases of deliberate ethylene glycol consumption among some of the more enterprising members of the local homeless population. I guess word gets around.
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:26 PM on October 15, 2012

When my mother and I were in the hospital right after I was born her doctor prescribed beer, as an aid for breastfeeding. An actual prescription, not just advice, so she could keep the beer in the nurses' fridge.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:27 PM on October 15, 2012

Anecdotal: I loathe alcohol. But while very ill, being denied treatment, playing musical doctors and in so much pain that prescription painkillers didn't do squat, I began having a nightcap to help me sleep. I did that and daily hot baths because they helped knock back my constant excruciating pain when very few things were giving me any relief. At some point, it occurred to me the alcohol and hot baths knocked back the pain because they were treating the underlying infection. Over time, I gradually got better.

I have also seen (and tried) a doctor approved recipe for a sinus rinse which contained a small amount of Everclear.
posted by Michele in California at 1:39 PM on October 15, 2012

I do believe that alcohol can help relieve symptoms and aid the body in fighting off disease but I think it's mainly because of it's relaxing nature. Stress and tension can compromise the efficiency and effectiveness of the body's immune system. Booze relaxes you and, I suspect, as a result your body can unleash more of its fury on whatever condition you have.

Anecdata: my dad was the orchestra manager for the Stuttgart opera. Once they went on tour to Greece. During the day of travel my dad came down with a terrible cold or flu (don't remember which). He bought a big bottle of retsina, checked into his hotel room and basically drank it down. He passed out and woke up 12+ hours later minus the cold/flu.

I've had similar experiences myself. My preferred combination in case of a cold is a double load of relaxation: a severely hot bath followed by a bottle of red wine or a solid pour of flavorful cask strength scotch followed by bedtime.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:33 PM on October 15, 2012

Interestingly, moderate alcohol use appears to reduce the death rate due to all causes (this page has links to lots of studies; I don't know who's behind it; I just found it via google.)
posted by pombe at 2:50 PM on October 15, 2012

Anecdata: Humans with a light to moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages very often have measurably greater overall wellness than both heavy consumers and those who abstain completely. Alcohol-containing grape and grain beverages (wine and beer) MAY have unique and beneficial nutritional properties, but most claims are unproven; historically, however, such beverages have been important daily staple sources of calories and certain vitamins in many diets throughout global human history.

Folk 'science': Alcohol 'opens your veins up' temporarily, increasing blood circulation. Your liver is the organ that filters and cleans your blood; running a little alcohol through it periodically is like giving your liver some exercise to keep it fit (but too much too often and you'll wear it out).

Some provable medical consequences of both light/moderate and heavy alcohol consumption:
posted by bartleby at 3:21 PM on October 15, 2012

As far as the notion that alcohol might somehow act as an antibiotic when taken internally, I'm inclined to say that's bunk. The concentrations of ethanol in the blood that humans can tolerate without, you know, dying, are far less than the concentrations required to work effectively as an antiseptic.

According to my very lazy glance at the ever-faithful Wikipedia, the upper range for blood alcohol concentrations in humans above which alcohol poisoning and risk of death occurs is around 0.5% of total blood concentration. Contrast that with this, which reports an effective antiseptic concentration of around 65.5% to 70% for topical application, and this one says, "Generally, the antimicrobial activity of alcohols is significantly lower at concentrations below 50% and is optimal in the 60 to 90% range." I'm pretty sure you don't want anywhere near that much alcohol in your blood, even if a lower concentration (say, you know, 10-20%) might still give some effect.

0.5%, though? I kinda doubt that's going to make any difference to your cold or flu, personally. The concentrations you'd be ingesting to get to 0.5% BAC might kill anything and everything in your mouth and your throat, and maybe that does some good, but that's all as far as it probably goes as an antimicrobial.
posted by po at 4:30 AM on October 16, 2012

The concentrations of ethanol in the blood that humans can tolerate without, you know, dying, are far less than the concentrations required to work effectively as an antiseptic.

Quite so. Concentrated alcohol kills bacteria by dissolving them, and if it's concentrated enough to dissolve bacteria it's concentrated enough to have a good old crack at dissolving you. That's why it stings so much in cuts or on mucous membranes.
posted by flabdablet at 7:32 AM on October 16, 2012

Ingesting alcohol can apparently have prophylactic antibiotic effects on your gastric contents, without ingesting enough to increase your blood alcohol level inordinately. It's not supported by a huge amount of evidence, but studies have shown that drinking alcohol with meals lowers the risk of contracting food poisoning from the meal.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:19 PM on October 16, 2012

This probably isn't exactly what you were looking for, but every now and again we will have a patient who is dependent on alcohol and the doctor will write an order for beer. The main reason being that for proper neuro monitoring we aren't comfortable giving them sedatives (the typical treatment for detoxing), and it's very dangerous to go cold-turkey off of alcohol.
posted by brevator at 5:54 PM on October 16, 2012

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