Mouthwash is one of several common household products that contains ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and is a common non-beverage alcohol (NBA) of use among alcoholics.
For some people, using alcohol-containing mouthwash doesn’t pose a problem. For others, however, the alcohol content in mouthwash can be triggering, and may lead to relapse. Swallowing large amounts of mouthwash is also a health hazard due to its many toxic ingredients.
Learning about the alcohol content in mouthwash and strategies for preventing relapse can be helpful ways to create a safe environment for people recovering from alcoholism.
How Much Alcohol Is In Mouthwash?
Mouthwash contains a type of alcohol known as ethanol. This type of alcohol can be found in several common household products, including cleaning supplies, hairspray, and hand sanitizer.
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The alcohol content within mouthwash can vary depending on the brand. Listerine’s original mouthwash, for example, contains 26.9 percent alcohol (54 proof). This means Listerine has higher alcohol content than beer, wine, and some lower-proof liquors.
Other common mouthwash brands that contain alcohol include:
- Scope: 18.9 percent
- Cepacol: 14 percent
- Colgate: 8.7 percent
- Other Listerine mouthwash products: 22.7 percent
In addition to ethanol, mouthwash contains several toxic ingredients that can have harmful effects on health when swallowed. For this reason, mouthwash labels are required to list explicit warnings about drinking mouthwash and provide directions for proper and safe use.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the following ingredients commonly found in mouthwash can be poisonous when consumed:
- ethanol (ethyl alcohol)
- hydrogen peroxide
- chlorhexidine gluconate
- methyl salicylate
The severity of health effects will depend on how much a person has consumed, how frequently they drink it, and other medical or mental health conditions.
Why Do Alcoholics Drink Mouthwash?
There are several reasons why someone with a current or previous problem with alcohol may use alcohol-containing mouthwash. Compared to alcoholic beverages, mouthwash is more widely available, as a product commonly sold at most grocery and drugstores.
Mouthwash is also:
- cheaper than most alcoholic beverages
- easier for teens and young adults under 21 to purchase
- a less conspicuous way to get drunk
Many people struggling with alcohol use face financial problems, either as a result of their drinking or other life circumstances. In times of desperation or financial hardship, mouthwash can be an easier and cheaper way to avoid withdrawal symptoms that occur as a result of alcohol dependence.
This is especially true among people who are homeless, in prison, or are otherwise deprived from alcohol and proper detox services.
How Mouthwash Can Be Dangerous To Alcoholism Recovery
Many people who are treated for alcohol use and become sober make the decision with family members or roommates to keep alcoholic beverages out of the house. This can create a safer environment for a person in early recovery by removing the ability to act on urges to drink in the home.
Mouthwash, on the other hand, is less likely to be identified as a trigger, as a product most commonly used to improve or maintain oral hygiene. Those most vulnerable to abusing mouthwash are people who have a history of using mouthwash or other NBAs to get drunk.
People experiencing urges to drink that don’t have easy access to alcohol may also turn to mouthwash. Having fresh breath is less likely to be a warning sign to friends, family, or roommates of relapse.
Signs that someone may be abusing mouthwash for its alcohol content include:
- having fresh, minty breath throughout the day
- becoming upset whenever a family member or roommate buys alcohol-free mouthwash
- excessive number of empty mouthwash bottles
- showing signs of being drunk in the absence of alcoholic beverages
- have stopped going to counseling or support groups
Side Effects And Dangers Of Drinking Mouthwash
Mouthwash contains several toxic ingredients that make it harmful to swallow, even in small amounts. Drinking mouthwash can cause a person to get drunk, but it can also have several other side effects affecting the gastrointestinal system and other organs in the body.
Side effects of swallowing mouthwash can include:
- stomach pain
Drinking large amounts of mouthwash can have even more dangerous effects, including liver damage, cardiac arrest, ulcers, and alcohol poisoning.
Drinking large amounts of mouthwash can lead to overdose, which can have life-threatening consequences. If someone is experiencing the following symptoms after drinking a large amount of mouthwash, call your local poison control center or 9-1-1 immediately.
Signs of mouthwash overdose:
- stomach pain
- severe diarrhea
- vomiting (may contain blood)
- low body temperature
- slurred speech
- slowed or shallow breathing
- skin redness
- throat pain
- low blood pressure
- low blood sugar
- loss of consciousness
While many children can accidentally overdose on mouthwash, for adults, this is typically a sign of alcohol use. Overdosing on mouthwash is not an incident to take lightly. It can indicate a serious problem that requires behavioral and medical treatment.
Is It Safe To Use Mouthwash In Recovery?
Keeping alcohol-containing mouthwash in the home can be risky for people recovering from alcoholism. People in early recovery, or those with a history of abusing mouthwash, can be at higher risk for drinking mouthwash in the absence of other alcoholic beverages.
The following are suggestions for preventing mouthwash from becoming a trigger in alcohol use recovery:
- Buying alcohol-free mouthwash: Several mouthwash brands have manufactured alcohol-free versions of their products. Having alcohol-free mouthwash in the home can be an effective way to reap the benefits of mouthwash without posing a risk to someone’s sobriety. Be sure to check the label of the alcohol-free mouthwash before purchasing to ensure there aren’t trace amounts of alcohol within the formula.
- Counseling and support groups: Going to counseling sessions and support groups are valuable ways to prevent relapse and talk about struggles in sobriety. This can help a person talk through facing triggers like mouthwash in the home, and provide space to develop strategies for staying sober.
If you or a loved one has already relapsed by drinking mouthwash, you are not alone. Alcoholism is a dangerous and complex disease that can be difficult to overcome, especially in the absence of a strong support system. Asking for help in times of struggle is an act of strength, not weakness.
If you or someone you know has relapsed and requires further treatment for their alcoholism, call one of our treatment specialists at Vertava Health today. We’ll help you find alcoholism treatment services capable of suiting your needs.