What is methanol poisoning?

Methanol is a type of alcohol not intended for human or animal consumption. Methanol is commonly found in products such as antifreeze, canned heating supplies such as Sterno, varnish, windshield washer fluid, paint thinner, and fuel additives. Methanol poisoning is extremely serious and can be fatal within a few hours if not treated immediately.

As little as a couple of tablespoons (approximately 14-28 ml) of methanol can cause methanol poisoning in children. In adults, two ounces (56 ml) can cause methanol poisoning. Ingestion of methanol is cause for serious concern and immediate hospital treatment.

Methanol poisoning has a number of symptoms. These include strange behavior, slipping into a coma, extreme dizziness, severe headaches, and seizures. Methanol poisoning can temporarily blind a person, dilate the pupils, and cause blurred vision. The digestive system immediately begins to reject methanol, and symptoms can include severe stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Methanol also disrupts liver and pancreatic function. Even with treatment, methanol poisoning can cause permanent liver damage.

Other symptoms in methanol poisoning are shortness of breath, signs of low oxygen levels through blue fingernails and lips, complete fatigue, and leg cramps. These symptoms, when taken together, represent a medical emergency, and you should contact 911 or the emergency services in your country immediately if you suspect methanol poisoning. You should not attempt to induce vomiting with syrup of ipecac unless instructed to do so by emergency services.

Treatment for methanol poisoning is quite intensive. Many patients have a nasal gastric tube inserted with activated charcoal, which helps "pump the stomach." Patients are observed for a sharp drop in blood pressure, seizures, or cessation of breathing. It is quite common for people to need dialysis, and most people also receive a methanol antidote in the form of ethanol. As symptoms develop, other medications, such as anticonvulsants, may be needed. Many people require respiratory support such as a respirator.

If you suspect methanol poisoning, it is important to take any suspected methanol containers to the hospital. Laboratory analysis can roughly determine how much methanol a product contains, which can help predict the degree of symptoms. However, you shouldn't waste time looking for containers of methanol if you don't know what a person has consumed.

Most cases of methanol poisoning are accidental. Unfortunately, some alcoholics may consume methanol on purpose. This often causes irreversible blindness and can cause death quite easily. To prevent this, some methanol products have added emetic properties, causing a person to vomit immediately after drinking them. This may not completely rid the body of methanol, and hospital treatment is still necessary, even if a person vomits immediately after drinking methanol.

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