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If you drink alcohol, you’ve probably heard some tips and tricks for getting sober faster.
Unfortunately, there is nothing most of us can do other than wait it out.
But scientists recently figured out something that might help, at least in a clinical setting:
They have found a way to breathe the booze out.
And while it won’t help you after a night on the town, it does have the serious potential to save lives.
So when we drink, alcohol in the form of ethanol goes from our guts into our bloodstream.
And from there, it affects our brains, circulation, and all sorts of other systems that make us, you know, feel drunk.
Then, our livers sober us up by converting the alcohol into another compound.
90 percent of the ethanol in our bodies is cleared through the liver,
and to this day, we have not been able to speed that process up.
But there is another way to get alcohol out of your blood: exhaling it.
See, if there’s a greater concentration of some gas in your blood than in your lungs,
you’ll start to breathe that gas out.
This is actually why we breathe out carbon dioxide.
The tiny blood vessels around our lungs called capillaries have a higher concentration of
carbon dioxide than in the air in our lungs.
That difference is enough to make the CO2 travel into the lungs and eventually, out of our mouths and noses.
The same is true of ethanol.
If it’s at a higher concentration in someone’s blood than in the air, they will breathe it out.
This is why breathalyzers work.
Now, if you’re thinking that to sober up, you just need to breathe a bunch, you don’t want to go down that road.
You’d probably pass out in a few minutes, because you wouldn’t just be breathing out
more ethanol, you would also be getting rid of too much CO2 too quickly.
And while too much carbon dioxide can hurt us, too little causes our brains’ blood
vessels to narrow, which deprives our brains of oxygen.
Still, that doesn’t mean the overall idea is useless.
In a 2020 paper from Scientific Reports, researchers came up with a simple, yet elegant way to make this work:
Just have people breathe in more CO2.
In their study, they had volunteers drink vodka in the lab.
Then, they hooked them up to a special breathing mask that supplied them with
the same amount of carbon dioxide that they had in their capillaries.
Essentially, they created equal concentrations of carbon dioxide in their lungs and in their bloodstreams.
And as a result, the participants could breathe out ethanol while their CO2 levels didn’t budge.
And sure enough, the participants who hyperventilated while hooked up to CO2 cleared ethanol from
their bloodstream three times faster
than when they sat around breathing normally without a mask.
Now, it’ll probably be a while before CO2 machines show up at your local bar, if they ever do.
But the bigger point is that this method might actually be especially useful for alcohol overdoses.
Right now, our best alternative is dialysis, which is literally filtering and cleaning blood with a machine,
which might not be immediately available in an emergency.
So, this new finding could give first responders another tool to help folks get alcohol out
of their systems faster, and save some lives along the way.
Thanks for asking! If you have a science question for us, let us know in the comments.
Or, if you’re a patron, you can leave it on our Patreon QQ inbox to make sure we see it.
Also if you want to learn more about the science of alcohol, you can watch our episode on SciShow
Psych about how different types of alcohol affect our emotions.