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Scientists in Canada say they’ve found a new way to treat potentially life-threatening alcohol intoxication—by helping people literally breathe out the alcohol in their system. Their device, which is designed to allow people to hyperventilate safely, was found to speed up the clearance of alcohol from healthy volunteers three times faster in a small pilot study.
Usually, toxins like alcohol are largely broken down by the liver. The liver can take a lot of punishment, but the rate that it metabolizes alcohol is constant, meaning you can’t speed up the process in times when the amount of alcohol in your body is enough to be fatal or seriously harmful. Most times, all doctors can do when someone is passed out is to make sure their breathing and body functions are stable until the liver can finish its job.
But the lungs also play a small role in naturally eliminating alcohol from our body, something that you’ve probably noticed if you’ve ever smelled booze on someone’s breath. This happens when blood saturated with alcohol reaches the lungs to be replenished with fresh oxygen. Some of the alcohol in the blood, along with carbon dioxide, is then exhaled.
This process can be sped up through hyperventilation, or the act of rapidly breathing. The trouble is, when we hyperventilate, we also lose too much carbon dioxide. To stop this from happening, our body has evolved to make us seriously uncomfortable or even lose consciousness when we hyperventilate for too long (this is why someone visibly panicking might faint).
According to study author and inventor Joseph Fisher, the device has found a way to interrupt this trigger while still keeping the person safe. The patient is outfitted with a gas mask, which connects to a supply of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The mixture of gases they breathe in causes them to hyperventilate, while the device then feeds them back enough carbon dioxide that the body doesn’t involuntarily freak out.
“With each breath, it is designed to allow the normal amount of carbon dioxide to escape and any excess is returned on the very next breath,” Fisher, an anesthesiologist and senior researcher at University Health Network in Toronto, said in an email. “This is all done in a simple way by a mechanical valve so it is foolproof—without needing electronics or computers.”
To test out the device, Fisher and his team recruited five healthy volunteers and told them to get mildly intoxicated (the beverage of choice was usually 250 milliliters of 80-proof vodka mixed with 500 milliliters of water). In a series of experiments conducted over two days, they were monitored as they both sobered up naturally and by using the device for up to a half hour. Their level of alcohol was measured via breathalyzer and through blood samples taken throughout the experiment. Compared to the natural method, the volunteers appeared to sober up three times faster while using the breathing device.
The team’s findings were published in Scientific Reports on Thursday.
Though the study’s sample is very small, meaning its results should be viewed with some caution, the device itself isn’t untested. Just last year, the company Fisher cofounded, Thornhill Medical, won marketing approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the device (branded as ClearMate) to be used in emergency rooms in the U.S. as a treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. Fisher says the same device could be used to treat both conditions as well as others in the future, including more toxic forms of alcohol poisoning, such as in people who have consumed windshield-washer fluid (methanol) or bootleg booze (polyethelene glycol).
According to Fisher, the basic fact that our lungs help remove alcohol from our bodies has been known for nearly a century. But he’s not sure why no one up until now has thought to try exploiting this process.
“The method is so simple and obvious that even looking at it, no one recognizes its potential,” he said. “Hiding in plain sight. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
While this device can be safely used by someone with alcohol poisoning who is conscious, it may hold even more promise for people who are passed out, while still being safe to operate for health care workers. “The greater the alcohol concentration in the blood, the more effective the method is,” Fisher said. “If the patient is unconscious, a tube can be placed in the lungs to protect the patient’s breathing, and the method can then be applied manually.”
Though the ClearMate device has won FDA approval for carbon monoxide poisoning, more data will be needed for it to be accepted as a treatment for alcohol poisoning. To that end, Fisher and his team hope that other researchers will be willing to test out the device in real-world settings, like emergency rooms and intensive care units, and publish their own findings.