Physiological Effects.—Alcohol, or Rectified Spirit, acts locally as an irritant and caustic poison. It causes heat, pain, redness and inflammation, with a condensation of the part to which it is applied. Its effects are chemical; it coagulates the liquid albumen or fibrin, and thereby increases the firmness and density of the tissues to which it is applied, while the irritation and inflammation which it causes arises in part from the resistance or reaction of the vital powers to the chemical action of the poison. In addition to its chemical action upon the albumen and fibrin, its highly pungent and local excitant properties are sufficient to produce irritation and inflammation on the surface where applied.
The remote effects of alcoholic liquids upon the system are subdivided according to the intensity of its action.
Its first and mildest degree of action is manifested by its excitant influence over the arterial and nervous systems. Frequency and fullness of the pulse, with a flushed face, an animated countenance, intellectual or mental excitement, with increased acuteness of ideas, and a joyous state of feeling, are among the first or primary effects of this agent. The individual becomes loquacious, and often very indiscreet in his language. While one drinks to drown his cares, another drinks to give him courage, and another that he may the better enjoy the society of his friends.
The second degree is characterized by an impaired state of the intellectual functions and powers of volition commonly called drunkenness or intoxication.
When in this state the individual becomes delirious, and loses the power to control the action of the voluntary muscles. Increased vascular excitement with frequent nausea and vomiting, are usual concomitants of this state, which is soon followed by a disposition to sleep, which is attended with copious perspiration. Headache, disgust for food, thirst and lassitude, are some of the symptoms manifested upon his recovery from sleep.
The third degree is attended with a state of coma or true apoplexy, when the face becomes livid or pale, respiration is stertorous, and the mouth frothy. This condition results from the ingestion of large quantities of it in a short space of time. In this state the secondary or sedative influences of the agent are clearly and unmistakably manifested. The pulse is slow, full and laborious, respiration slow, and the pupils mostly dilated, and in some cases convulsions ensue. In some instances true apoplexy supervenes, either attended with or without sanguineous extravasation. A paralytic state of the muscles of respiration, or a closure of the glottis, is supposed to constitute the real cause or causes of death.
The moral degradation which it causes is often truly deplorable; while the morbid effects resulting from its continued use are very numerous; among which may be named delirium tremens, insanity, disease of the liver, such as a tuberculated state of that organ, scirrhous induration, torpor, enlargement, jaundice, and visceral obstructions.
Those addicted to the intemperate use of ardent spirits are particularly liable to disorders of the stomach, such as impaired appetite, dyspepsia, chronic gastritis, and even scirrhus of the pylorus.
A diseased state of the kidneys, general dropsy, melancholia, etc., are a few of the many morbid states of the system consequent upon the improper use of alcohol. Its free use often develops new diseases, or renders old ones incurable, by enfeebling the constitution and rendering it incapable of withstanding the necessary mode of medication. On these latter causes its mortality principally depends.
Alcohol is absorbed into the circulation, and in this way it exerts its influence upon the nervous system. That it is absorbed is readily proven from its presence in the blood, urine, bile, serous fluids, brain, liver, breath, etc. It accumulates in the system, and well authenticated cases are reported in which the fluids within the ventricles of the brain possessed the odor, taste, and inflammability of ardent spirits. Dr. Ogston states that, in one instance, he found about four ounces of fluid in the ventricles, possessing all the physical qualities of alcohol.
Therapeutic Action.—Spirit of Wine is stimulant, narcotic, antiseptic, rubefacient, refrigerant, astringent, sedative, and diuretic, and is employed both as a medicinal agent and for pharmaceutical purposes.
As a medicinal agent it is seldom employed internally, brandy, gin, wine, or whisky being mostly prescribed when ardent spirit is indicated. Brandy is the kind most frequently used as an excitant. It acts as a powerful diffusible stimulant, and as such it is exhibited to support the vital energies in the advanced or typhoid stages of fevers, also in cases of syncope, languor, and other states of depression. It often affords relief in cases of flatulency, gastrodynia, spasmodic pains in the stomach or bowels, nervous colic, and also when the food is not readily digested and oppresses the stomach. It sometimes relieves nausea and vomiting, particularly in cases of sea-sickness.