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Methanol (wood alcohol) is commonly found in a variety of products, including solvents, duplicating fluids, record cleaning solutions, and paint removers. It is sometimes ingested intentionally by patients with alcohol use disorder as a substitute for ethanol and may also be found as a contaminant in bootleg whiskey. Ethylene glycol is the major constituent in most antifreeze compounds. The toxicity of both agents is caused by metabolism to highly toxic organic acids—methanol to formic acid; ethylene glycol to glycolic and oxalic acids. Diethylene glycol is a nephrotoxic solvent that has been improperly substituted for glycerin in various liquid medications (cough syrup, teething medicine, acetaminophen), causing numerous deaths in Haiti, Panama, and Nigeria.


Shortly after ingestion of methanol or ethylene glycol, patients usually appear “drunk.” The serum osmolality (measured by freezing point depression) is usually increased, but acidosis is often absent early. After several hours, metabolism to toxic organic acids leads to a severe anion gap metabolic acidosis, tachypnea, confusion, convulsions, and coma. Methanol intoxication frequently causes visual disturbances, while ethylene glycol often produces oxalate crystalluria and AKI. Note: Point-of-care analytical devices commonly used in the emergency department may falsely measure glycolic acid (a toxic metabolite of ethylene glycol) as lactic acid.


A. Emergency and Supportive Measures

For patients presenting within 30–60 minutes after ingestion, empty the stomach by aspiration through a nasogastric tube. Charcoal is not very effective but should be administered if other poisons or drugs have also been ingested.

B. Specific Treatment

Patients with significant toxicity (manifested by severe metabolic acidosis, altered mental status, markedly elevated osmol gap, or evidence of end-organ toxicity) should undergo hemodialysis as soon as possible to remove the parent compound and the toxic metabolites. Treatment with folic acid, thiamine, and pyridoxine may enhance the breakdown of toxic metabolites.

Ethanol blocks metabolism of the parent compounds by competing for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Fomepizole (4-methylpyrazole; Antizol) blocks alcohol dehydrogenase and is much easier to use than ethanol. If started before onset of acidosis, fomepizole may be used as the sole treatment for ethylene glycol ingestion in some cases. A regional poison control center (1-800-222-1222) should be contacted for indications and dosing.

Gallagher  N  et al. The diagnosis and management of toxic alcohol poisoning in the emergency department: a review article. Adv J Emerg Med. 2019;3:e28.
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Kraut  JA  et al. Toxic alcohols. N Engl J Med. 2018;378:270.
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Pohanka  M. Antidotes against methanol poisoning: a review. Mini Rev Med Chem. 2019;19:1126.
[PubMed: 30864518]  

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