Could Breathing Help When You’ve Had a Few Too Many?

A medical device that helps people safely hyperventilate to clear alcohol from their bloodstream could also aid with other toxicity troubles.


Alcohol poisoning can be life threatening, and once the alcohol has been absorbed into the bloodstream there is currently little that can be done except for to wait and watch for complications.

Alcohol is quickly absorbed by the body, but it takes a long time to clear. The liver is responsible for more than 90 percent of alcohol clearance, where an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase breaks it down. But the liver’s capacity gets overwhelmed at low blood alcohol levels and reaches a maximum processing rate that won’t go faster no matter how much more alcohol is present.

Apart from the liver, the lungs can help expel a small amount of alcohol that evaporates from the blood as a person exhales. It’s the same mechanism that allows a breathalyzer test to work, but until now there has been no good way to help speed up the process.

Taking more breaths would accelerate alcohol elimination, but hyperventilation also sends too much carbon dioxide out of the blood, causing dangerous swings in blood pH and causing dizziness and loss of consciousness after just a minute or two.

Toronto-based Thornhill Medical has designed a device to help patients hyperventilate while maintaining their carbon dioxide levels. This spin-off company from the University Health Network is also known for producing innovative portable ventilators that are helping expand ICU capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The device is called ClearMate, and it was originally intended to help patients clear carbon monoxide. It gives the patient extra carbon dioxide mixed with fresh air as they hyperventilate to keep those levels constant in the blood. It works without electricity by using valves to regulate how much carbon dioxide is released from a tank so that it scales with how hard the user breathes.

They tested alcohol clearance on five healthy volunteers who consumed half a glass of vodka mixed with water. Each volunteer was monitored using breathalyzers and blood tests while clearing the alcohol from their systems normally, or with the help of ClearMate, on two separate days.

By drawing blood from a vein in the forearm and an artery in the wrist, the researchers could measure blood alcohol before and after passing through the lungs.

It was a small human study, but measuring the elimination half life (the time it takes for the blood alcohol concentration to drop by half), they found that alcohol clearance rate tripled with ClearMate compared to without. Their study was published in Scientific Reports.

Further studies are needed to confirm whether this strategy will work for severe alcohol intoxication, but this new application for the device might just be the tip of the iceberg. It might also be useful for a child who has swallowed a poison, or a survivor of a fire who might have inhaled toxins at the scene.

And because it’s portable and easy for an EMT to administer, it can be used on site or en route to hospital. While it’s not recommended to try this on your own, under controlled medical supervision, hyperventilation could open a new way to eliminate toxins from the body that would be useful for many applications when precious minutes count.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.