Can You Clean a Wound With Drinking Alcohol: Highly Unlikely

Over the years humans have used a whole lot of things to clean and protect wounds. Peanut butter and turtle blood are some of the more unusual choices. There’s a huge difference between doing something, and doing something effective and helpful. Sometimes the weird stuff works just fine, like leeches or maggots. Being a bit creepy doesn’t make them less effective. Learning about unusual wound care made me think we should stick with the more common solutions like nice sterile alcohol, but does it really work?

Can you clean a wound with drinking alcohol? In an emergency where you have no access to modern medical treatment and absolutely no safer alternative then maybe. Some cleaning is better than none. However, alcohol can do more harm than good in a wound

Note- I’m not a health professional. If the world hasn’t ended, go to the doctor. Maybe wash your wound out first and staunch the bleeding. Do not waste a good bottle of Scotch on your cuts! 

A History of Spirits

It seems so commonplace to use alcohol for a wound that it’s really kind of hard to wrap your head around what a bad idea it is. As far back as the ancient Sumerians, people used ethanol to clean wounds. The Sumerians preferred beer and had more than a dozen kinds. With all the history behind it, it becomes easy to see why the practice is still in use.

Akkadians and other Arabic cultures used a combination of sesame and wine for their injuries. The ancient Greeks preferred to boil water, wine, and vinegar together or separately. The Egyptians used palm wine to clean wounds, and when that failed it made a great embalming agent. Even the army of Ghengis Khan had healers who used boiling wine or spirits to clean out nasty battlefield injuries.

It was good enough for kings and khans, so it can’t be all bad. Or so you might think, but keep in mind some of those same ancestors thought the world was flat and you could fall from the edge. Not everything that is commonly believed is true. Sometimes things just aren’t what they seem.

How Does Alcohol Work

Alcohol kills bacteria. To understand how you need to understand bacteria. Bacteria are mostly made of proteins, fats, amino acids, and water molecules. The not-too-technical explanation is that there are proteins inside a membrane. The membrane is a bit like a shell or armor.

Alcohol molecules bond with the cell membrane. This makes it more water soluble and it falls apart as more alcohol gets inside. The proteins spill out and the alcohol dissolves them. The amino acids bond to the alcohol cells and cease functioning. This is not the technically extensive version, but the gist is there. Alcohol eats protein.

Why Does it Hurt So Much

That sensation you feel is a warning. When alcohol gets inside an open wound it is killing the tissue. Not just the bad stuff it’s working to disinfect, your tissue is getting killed. Essentially you are adding damage.

When it burns, there’s more going on in there. The short version: Your VR1 receptors tell your brain there’s heat. Alcohol tells your VR1 receptors that things are hot a whole lot sooner, at lower temperatures.

The TLDR version is that it booze melts bacteria and skin because they’re both made of protein. Alcohol sterilizes, but your body needs living cells to knit tissue back together. This is why you should always have a great wound cleaner on hand before a disaster occurs. One that is highly rated that I recommend can be purchased on Amazon. Click here to get the latest pricing and details.

Best Drinking Alcohols for Wound Care

So, let’s say you’re stuck in a liquor store that doesn’t carry mixers. The apocalypse caught you napping and you lost everything you had with you. Now some really crazy teetotalers with guns, are outside preventing a safe escape. If that’s not bad enough, you skinned your knee and most of your shin climbing through a vent to hide inside. The wound is full of dust and whatever else was in that vent you crawled through.

Sadly, you have more serious problems than just that shin. Clearly, slowing the healing process isn’t as bad as dying from vent-funk induced putrescence. You need to prevent infection, not worry about the ideal situation you aren’t in. In this case, you’ve got a lesser-of-evils situation. Go for it. At least the wound will be sterile.

It’s likely that anything with the name of a fruit, candy or other flavorings on the label is not a good choice due to impurities in the spirit that help with flavor. Save the Schnapps and Jagermeister for when you’re celebrating your freedom back at your fortified BOL. Go with clear alcohol that has as few impurities as possible.

Top 4 Drinking Alcohols For Wound Care

It’s not your best choice. It’s not a good choice. You should not do it… but if it’s the only option in the world then here are some relatively ‘clean,’ options.

  1. Vodka– This relatively pure alcohol typically made from wheat, rye, barley or corn is not ridiculously high in alcohol by volume and is usually free from flavoring agents. There are so many better uses for vodka though, try it on your laundry.
  2. Tequila- Made of the heated center of the blue agave, anything that is actually tequila has an identifiable source. That’s something at least.
  3. Wine- Fermented fruit juice is fairly basic stuff in its untainted forms. Diluted wine has been given to those with stomach wounds to help keep them free of infections while they healed internally, just not by modern medical practitioners.
  4. Whiskey- If you’ve made it this far down the list and you are out of other supplies, but you have whiskey. It’s still probably better for a little hot toddy when your throat is sore. On the plus side, Carnegie Mellon says people who drink a moderate amount are more virus resistant. You can, however, use it to help you sleep once things are clean. Just don’t do this too often.

Sterilizing and Other Useful Tricks

Don’t go throwing out the cheap vodka you never drink just yet. There are plenty of good uses for alcohol. Not just Molotov Cocktails, there are alternate medical uses for that booze. While it may not be the best choice for soaking a bloody wound, you can certainly use tequila to clean and sterilize a needle before you perform TEOTWAWKI field surgery. It will keep your scissors and scalpels from causing more problems than they solve.

You can use alcohol for making medicinal tinctures. Some of it can help clean out your mouth and keep your dishes from becoming a source of contaminants. Alcohol has plenty of great uses beyond drinking. Wound cleaning should not be on the list. Use it to sterilize bandages or start a fire for cauterizing instead.

Alcohol wipes are probably the culprit responsible for people thinking that alcohol is meant for wound care. Unfortunately, there is a difference between cleaning and sterilizing. Sterile is a form of clean, but just like ultra-purified water or too much oxygen can harm you, so can being too clean. Cleaning off skin cells you need is not good. Your body is not a dead museum display under a vacuum seal.

Final Thoughts

Wash out your wounds. Not doing so can cause you some pretty serious problems. Getting creative is not necessary. Being the cleverest and most creative survivor is a bit like being the richest billionaire. Bragging rights are fine, but you’re already one of the elite. Getting distracted with just how much you have to work with could hurt you. You don’t need ten ways to do something, just a couple of good ones.

However, if you’re in a bind and you have your flask on you, it might still be a better plan to bite the bullet and dump your favorite vodka on the problem than to let it fester. You may want a sip or two first, but if you’re still bleeding, don’t do it. Alcohol is a blood thinner and it will not do you any favors in that case. If the world is really over and there’s no choice left, it’s a calculated risk. Otherwise, save it for something else.

This is why I suggest having a great wound cleaner. Here is one that is highly rated and is available on Amazon. Click here to get more information and pricing.

Additional Questions

  1. What is the best way to clean a wound? Clean water or saline solution should be safe and relatively undamaging. Many commonly used cleansing products are misunderstood. Hydrogen peroxide is a great example of this. Recent data shows that the bubbling action most people interpret as germ killing is also killing tissue and may be actively slowing down the healing process. 
  2. Should I let my clean wound scab or not? Scabs, contrary to popular belief, are not ideal. Wounds heal much better in a moist environment. Clean and moist is a tough balancing act. Try some honey on the wound for a surprisingly effective bit of wound care. Not only will it keep you from drying out, but it also helps prevent infection. Intriguingly, some studies show honey may help increase healing time. 
  3. What else does alcohol kill? In addition to bacteria, it can help kill off mold and mildew. There’s fair evidence for Salmonella, H. pylori, E.coli, and Shigella all being susceptible to the denaturing qualities of various alcohols. Most interestingly, there is evidence that fruit flies are using alcohol to self medicate for parasites. More study is needed on that topic. It seems like alcohol in some form can kill almost anything. 

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