Why does alcohol burn?

+71 votes
asked Sep 8, 2015 in Science by Mariyam (800 points)
edited Oct 22, 2015 by Kris
Why does alcohol burn? Like when you get a cut and apply some alcohol to it and it really stings. Why does that happen? Is there something with our body that just dislikes it? The clinic lady used to tell me that it's just all the bacteria and infections burning away with the liquid. I don’t think it works that way, right?

1 Answer

+29 votes
answered Sep 29, 2015 by Lupe04564164 (360 points)
Why does alcohol burn? Doesn’t matter what type of alcohol, even the ones you used for drinking, all of them burns. Well not literally burn you, but rather it’s just a sensation. Alcohol burns because our nerve receptors that react to boiling water and fire is activated when a cut get in touch with the chemical. These special cells, called the VR1 receptors, shoot up neurochemical signals on our brain when exposed to heat.

Exposing the receptors to alcohol, like pouring the disinfectant on a cut, the chemical lowers the threshold of temperature required to send the signal. A study done on this interaction reveals that the trigger becomes 10 degrees lower than usual. Chilled alcohol on a cut will still apply this sting. This is why water doesn’t cause any strings since there is no reaction.

But then, what is the source of the heat that set off the receptors after? Indiana Public Radio explains this part. In theory, the heat generated by the inflammation of the cells become the source of the stinging, burning sensation, with our receptors threshold lowered so much to feel that pain.

Robert Kirsner of the American Academy of Dermatology said to skip the alcohol or other non-alcohol based disinfectant when you get a cut. Apparently, these chemicals would also kill off the good healthy cells you want while cleaning the wound. So while we are clearing it off bad bacteria, we also slow down the healing process at the same time. The best way is to just run the wound out under water so as not to damage any healthy tissue.

Maybe the pain is signaling you that the alcohol is attacking your body so it sends out the burning pain? Who knows…  I would still like to believe that the bad bacteria are making its final resistance will trying to fight off the cleansing power of the alcohol. There is still no definite theory on how the mechanics of how the interaction between the open wound and alcohol.
commented Oct 15, 2015 by AngelitaFoli (100 points)
thanks a lot for answering my question why does alcohol burn!!
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