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According to the American Dental Association, mouthwash can be a helpful addition to people’s dental hygiene routines to improve and maintain oral health. The alcohol in mouthwash is useful for the average consumer’s oral hygiene because of its ability to:
However, some people suffering from alcohol addiction may also turn to mouthwash as a secret vice.
The intended use of mouthwash is for the user to swish it around in their mouth and then spit it out.
You should never swallow mouthwash because there are several ingredients in it that can be harmful when ingested. Some of them have grave consequences, including blindness, organ failure, and even death.
When most people think of alcohol, they think of a specific type of alcohol called ethanol, the intoxicating chemical found in wine, beer, and liquor. Most kinds of mouthwash also contain ethanol, although there are several companies that manufacture alcohol-free mouthwash.
There are two types of mouthwash, including therapeutic and cosmetic. Cosmetic mouthwash may temporarily manage bad breath and leave behind a “minty fresh” taste, but there is no chemical or biological purpose behind its temporary benefits.
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If a product doesn’t kill the bacteria associated with bad breath, its benefit is purely cosmetic. Therapeutic mouthwash, on the other hand, contains active ingredients meant to help control or decrease conditions, including bad breath, gingivitis, plaque, and tooth decay.
The ingredients in mouthwash that are toxic when consumed in large quantities include:
Swallowing a small amount of mouthwash accidentally will not cause much harm, but ingesting larger quantities as a beverage can be severely dangerous. Overdosing on mouthwash can cause the following side effects, many of which are similar to the side effects associated with alcohol poisoning:
Alcohol-based mouthwash is even considered a risk factor for oral cancer caused by its alcohol content.
The alcohol content in mouthwash fights oral plaque, bad breath, and promotes overall good dental hygiene. Mouthwash can also get people drunk.
Listerine, for example, is 26.9 percent alcohol, or 54-proof, making its alcohol content higher than that of most wine, beer, and some liquors.
Because of its high alcohol content, people struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) often turn to mouthwash when they can’t get their hands on regular alcoholic beverages. Statistics show that 10-15% undergoing alcohol detox in a hospital have consumed non-beverage alcohol products like mouthwash, hand sanitizer, and hairspray.
Even the brands of mouthwash that are lower in alcohol than Listerine (Scope: 18.9%, Cepacol 14%) are still a lot more toxic than a single beer (between 3-7%).
Mouthwash is more readily available and cheaper than alcohol. Since its alcohol content is higher than most other alcohol forms, some alcoholics turn to mouthwash as a cheap and fast way to get drunk.
Often, people in recovery from alcohol use disorder in the midst of a relapse may turn to consuming mouthwash so their loved ones and treatment counselors don’t know they have relapsed. Mouthwash is easy to get, easy to hide, and doesn’t have the distinct alcohol smell.
The dangers of drinking mouthwash are similar to the risks associated with consuming too many alcoholic beverages.
The alcohol in mouthwash is denatured; this means it is doctored with chemicals to give it an unpleasant taste and rendering it unsafe for human consumption. Ingesting large amounts of mouthwash to get drunk can lead to medical problems because it disturbs the body’s acid-base balance. The most severe consequences include:
If you or a loved one has experienced a mouthwash overdose, you must call 911 or the Poison Control Center Help Hotline (1-800-222-1222). If you suspect a mouthwash overdose, do not wait for symptoms to develop; seek help immediately.
After a mouthwash overdose or any alcohol overdose, a patient will typically undergo alcohol detoxification. Once the detox is complete, the patient will enter long-term treatment or rehab for alcohol abuse, with the goal of long-term maintenance of the alcohol-free state.
There are inpatient and outpatient programs for alcohol detoxification and treatment programs.
No. You should not rinse your mouth with water after using mouthwash. This dilutes the rinse and makes it less effective against fighting cavities, gum disease, and other oral conditions.
Ingesting a lot of mouthwash can lead to medical problems because it disturbs the body’s acid-base balance. The most severe consequences include organ failure, blindness, alcohol poisoning, coma, and death (in the most extreme cases).
Don't worry if you swallow a little mouthwash. You may experience minor side effects, such as nausea and diarrhea, but will likely recover in a couple of days.
It is best to choose alcohol-free mouthwash.
Drinking water directly after using mouthwash dilutes the rinse and makes it less effective against fighting cavities, gum disease, and other oral conditions. Wait at least 30 minutes.
Egbert, AM, et al. “Alcoholics Who Drink Mouthwash: the Spectrum of Nonbeverage Alcohol Use.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, www.jsad.com/doi/abs/10.15288/jsa.1985.46.473
Lachenmeier, D. W., Monakhova, Y. B., Markova, M., Kuballa, T., & Rehm, J. (2013). “What happens if people start drinking mouthwash as surrogate alcohol? A quantitative risk assessment.” Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 51, 173–178 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.09.031
Keevil, Genesee. “Listerine: Cheap, Accessible and Dangerous.” Yukon News, Yukon News, 1 Oct. 2009, www.yukon-news.com/news/listerine-cheap-accessible-and-dangerous/
“Mouthwash.” Mouth Healthy TM, www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/m/mouthwash
Hayashida, Motoi. An Overview of Outpatient and Inpatient Detoxification. pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/44-46.pdf
Ustrell-Borràs, M, et al. “Alcohol-Based Mouthwash as a Risk Factor of Oral Cancer: A Systematic Review.” Medicina Oral, Patologia Oral y Cirugia Bucal, Medicina Oral S.L., 1 Jan. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6982979/