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Dr. Frank Bures: Simple rubbing alcohol reason to be thankful

Dr. Frank Bures: Simple rubbing alcohol reason to be thankful

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Once again it’s turkey time, time to give thanks for the good things we have. This year’s Thanksgiving column is for rubbing alcohol. It’s old, cheap but it still works — kind of like the guy writing this.

Rubbing alcohol has and still is making a significant difference in things medical, both as an antiseptic and disinfectant. The difference between these terms is that when the same substance is applied to living tissue, it’s called an antiseptic; when put on an inanimate surface it becomes a disinfectant.

Rubbing alcohol is the common term for either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol, and sometimes a combination of them. For those of us who endured a memorable year of organic chemistry, ethyl alcohol is C2H6OH or a short chain hydrocarbon.

For most people, it’s “alcohol” or ethanol, very familiar as any adult beverage’s common ingredient, from beer to liquor. Ethyl alcohol’s history goes back centuries to the first fermentation of liquids, perhaps by the Egyptians, who made and consumed copious amounts of beer. However, it takes at least a 50 percent concentration, or 100 proof, for the consumable variety of alcohol to become an antiseptic.

Isopropyl alcohol is essentially ethanol with another C and H attached to the molecule. It’s more often referred to as rubbing alcohol, and ethanol is grain alcohol because it is distilled from, yup, grain. Wood alcohol is methyl alcohol/methanol, and is distilled from, yup, wood. This type is very toxic to ingest. One ounce can cause blindness and even death.

The primary medical use of rubbing of either chemical variety has been for disinfection and antisepsis. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines from 2008 states: “In the health care setting, ‘alcohol’ refers to two water-soluble chemical compounds — ethyl and isopropyl alcohol — that have generally underrated germicidal (killing) characteristics. FDA has not cleared any liquid chemical sterilant on high-level disinfectant with alcohol as the main active ingredient. These alcohols are rapidly bacteriocidal (bacteria killing) rather than bacteriostatic (stunting their growth) ... they are also tuberculocidal, fungicidal, virucidal, but do not destroy bacterial spores.”

Methanol has the weakest killing power against bacteria and is seldom used in medicine.

Both alcohols, ethyl and isopropyl, can kill several bacteria in 10 seconds or fewer in the lab, including Staph aureus, Strep pyogenes, E. coli, Salmonella typhosa, and Pseudomonas species, some of the bad actors in infections. For M. tuberculosis, it may take as long as five minutes of contact.  Many, but not all, viruses are goners, too, like HIV, hepatitis B, herpes, influenza, etc. Even some systemic bad fungal infections are susceptible, but again not all.

The word alcohol is actually Arabic. The first documented alcohol derivation beyond fermentation was done by a 10th century Persian alchemist, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi. It was called kuhl, in the form of a powder of the mineral antimony, which was used as an antiseptic, eyeliner and cosmetics.

The word alcohol first appeared in English in the 16th century as the Arabic article al-, which means the, and kohl. Later In 1657 it was further twisted into the “spirit of wine” as alcohol.

Beyond medical uses rubbing alcohol can be helpful in many household ways, such as cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, shining chrome bath fixtures, spraying a diluted solution on your frosted car window and even spraying it on the windshield to keep frost from forming.

A lot of folks’ memory of rubbing alcohol is when Mom put it on an “owie” and really made an owie, which doesn’t elicit much thankfulness if you’re 6 years old.

Perhaps we need to do a little back-to-the-future utilization of what has been and can be a very beneficial, cost-effective antiseptic approach for a lot of instances where we now use goops to prevent infection.

The straight stuff is the best, not the little pads. Ironically, a 70 percent concentration with water kills better than 90 percent because the water lets the rubbing alcohol into the bacterial cells more completely for the “cidal” effect.

Rubbing alcohol gets this year’s vote for medical thankfulness. We hope you have many other things for which to be thankful, and have a happy holiday.


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