What is Methanol Poisoning?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Methanol is a type of alcohol not intended for human or animal consumption. It’s common to find methanol in products like anti-freeze, canned heating sources like Sterno, varnish, windshield wiper fluid, paint thinner, and fuel additives. Methanol poisoning is extremely serious and can result in death within a few hours if not immediately treated.

Methanol poisoning can cause difficulty in breathing.
Methanol poisoning can cause difficulty in breathing.

As little as a couple of tablespoons (about 14-28 ml) of methanol can cause methanol poisoning in children. In adults, two ounces (56 ml) may cause poisoning. Ingestion of methanol is cause for very grave concern and immediate hospital treatment.

Methanol is an alcohol not intended for human or animal consumption.
Methanol is an alcohol not intended for human or animal consumption.

Methanol poisoning has a number of symptoms. These include bizarre behavior, falling into a coma, extreme dizziness, severe headaches and seizures. Consuming metanol can render a person temporarily blind, dilate the pupils and cause blurred vision. The digestive system starts to immediately reject methanol and symptoms may include severe stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Methanol also disrupts liver and pancreatic function. Even with treatment, a person may have permanent liver damage.

Symptoms of the body rejecting methanol include stomach pain.
Symptoms of the body rejecting methanol include stomach pain.

Other symptoms of this condition are difficulty breathing, signs of low oxygen levels through blue fingernails and lips, complete fatigue and cramps in the legs. These symptoms when taken together represent a medical emergency, and you should contact 911 or emergency services in your country immediately if you suspect methanol poisoning. You should not attempt to induce vomiting with syrup of ipecac unless you are instructed to do so by emergency services.

Medical help will be required to treat individuals suffering from methanol poisoning.
Medical help will be required to treat individuals suffering from methanol poisoning.

Treatment for methanol poisoning is fairly intensive. Many patients have a nasal-gastric tube inserted with activated charcoal, which helps “pump the stomach.” Patients are observed for sharp declines in blood pressure, seizures, or stopping breathing. It is quite common for people to need dialysis, and most people are also given an antidote to methanol in the form of ethanol. As symptoms develop, other medications, like anticonvulsants may be needed. Many people require breathing support like a respirator.

If you do suspect poisoning from methanol, it's important to take any suspected containers with methanol with you to the hospital. Lab analysis can roughly determine how much methanol a product contains which can help predict the degree of symptoms. You should not, however, waste time searching for methanol containers if you don’t know what a person has consumed.

Most cases of methanol poisoning are accidental. Unfortunately, some alcoholics may actually consume methanol on purpose. This frequently causes irreversible blindness and can quite easily result in death. To prevent this, some methanol products have emetic properties added, which make a person immediately throw up after drinking them. This may not completely rid the body of methanol and hospital treatment is still necessary, even if a person immediately throws up after drinking methanol.

Methanol poisoning can lead to a coma or death.
Methanol poisoning can lead to a coma or death.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

AnswerMan

There used to be a lot of cases of methanol poisoning back in the days when moonshining was popular. If the distiller didn't use the right ingredients or follow the recipe, the imbiber would often go blind within a few days. If the wood alcohol didn't kill them outright, it would mess up their livers and kidneys for years. That was one reason why law enforcement was so vigilant about shutting down those operations. One bad batch with methanol could have killed a lot of people.

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