TORONTO — Canadian researchers say they’ve developed a game-changing method to treat alcohol poisoning — and it involves literally breathing alcohol out of the body by hyperventilating.
They say it’s three times faster than relying on the liver alone.
Lead researcher Joseph Fisher, a senior scientist at University Health Network’s Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, calls the technique a “no-brainer” that doesn’t have side effects and involves a very simple mechanical device to assist breathing.
He says the process simply takes advantage of the fact that each exhalation, along with carbon dioxide, contains alcohol that has evaporated from the blood into the lungs.
“And the more breaths you take, the more evaporates. It’s that simple,” says Fisher.
Of course hyperventilating causes its own issues — including light-headedness, tingling or numbness on hands and feet, and fainting.
Fisher’s approach relies on a device that administers the exact amount of carbon dioxide needed to maintain normal levels in the blood.
It’s the size of a small briefcase and uses a valve system, connecting tubes, a mask, and a small tank with compressed carbon dioxide.
Fisher says a small study involving five male volunteers proved the concept works, but more extensive clinical trials are needed.
He hopes it could one day serve as a powerful tool in any hospital emergency department.
“I used to be an emergency doc and I know they have big issues with patients who — on top of everything else — are also alcohol-intoxicated,” says Fisher.
“Many of them, you don’t know what’s wrong with them. They’re coming in unconscious and highly alcohol-intoxicated so they’re hard to examine…. And there’s nothing you can do. You have to wait until their livers metabolize it.”
The study was released Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature Research.
Subjects each drank about half a glass of vodka and were able to eliminate alcohol three times faster than through the liver alone, says Fisher.
He says the approach is as effective as using a hyperbaric chamber, a much more involved set-up that delivers oxygen in a pressurized room or chamber.
Years ago, Fisher developed similar techniques to address carbon monoxide poisoning and eliminate anesthetics from the body.
He says he discounted the possibility hyperventilation could also be used to treat alcohol poisoning until about two years ago when a colleague suggested it.
Now, Fisher wonders if there are more ways to use the method.
“This is why my armpits are sweating — (it could save) the little kid that gets into the laundry room and drinks one of the solvents or something like that. Usually those kids are down for the count but this may be an approach,” he says, also musing on treating survivors of a fire who may have inhaled toxins.
“I think it opens up a number of areas that people can look at to get rid of.”
As it stands, there is no treatment for alcohol intoxication, and there is no way to speed up the rate at which the liver works to clear alcohol from the body.
Fisher says the technique is especially efficient if intoxication is high, making it less useful after a casual night of drinking, for instance.
Nor does he recommend people try to hyperventilate on their own. The treatment is really designed for severe cases that can be life-threatening or endanger organs such as the liver or brain.
Dr. Laurent Brochard, a critical care physician and scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital, says the technique is “very smart” but agrees it requires real-world testing.
“A guy who is drunk, it may be difficult even to put the mask on the face,” says Brochard, adding that if the patient has ingested other drugs, that might further complicate care.
“But I think it makes sense to try (it). We don’t have anything else.”