Does Alcohol Kill Germs?

We’ve all been there. A friend with a weird (maybe) pimple on his upper lip offers you a sip of his beer. “You can really taste the grapefruit in the hops!” Yes, you can, but you’re also just staring at his lips…

Or maybe it’s a coworker powering through a Happy Hour with an obvious high fever. She says it’s just because the bar is overcrowded, then coughs up something toxic green and shoves a tumbler of bourbon in your face because “it’s a revelation.” It is. But now are you going to die?

For any of us who’ve been there, we’ve all heard the rationalization “booze kills the germs!” But does it, really? We go home, nervously Google “does alcohol kills germs, please god,” and just find a bunch of other people asking the same question.

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We figured rather than search around the generally hyper-panicked message boards, we’d go straight to the rationally-minded, probably sober, scientifically equipped source, the CDC. They’re scientists, they party, they’d know, right?

Some good news, to start. Ethyl alcohol—the same stuff in our PBRs, Rieslings, and vodka tonics—has “generally underrated germicidal characteristics.” It does get a bit more complicated (this is the CDC, after all).  The alcohol is “rapidly bactericidal rather than bacteriostatic against vegetative forms of bacteria; they also are tuberculocidal, fungicidal, and virucidal but do not destroy bacterial spores.”

Bacterial spores—which can cause anything from food poisoning to anthrax to something terrible called pseudomembranous colitis—probably aren’t your concern if you’re out socializing.  (Unless you do some intense socializing.) But stuff like the flu, or herpes, may be a general concern. If you take that sip, how much risk are you at?

Some good news, to start. Per the CDC, “Ethyl alcohol…is a potent virucidal agent inactivating all of the lipophilic viruses (e.g., herpes, vaccinia, and influenza virus) and many hydrophilic viruses (e.g., adenovirus, enterovirus, rhinovirus, and rotaviruses but not hepatitis A virus (HAV) 58 or poliovirus).” So no, you’re not safe against polio, but ethyl alcohol kills a bunch of terrifying viruses, right?

Yes, but—here’s the big caveat—only at concentrations over 60 to 80%, anywhere from 50 to 75% above most of the stuff we drink socially. Meaning if your friend isn’t offering you a sip of cask strength whiskey (which usually clocks in at around 60 to 65%), you may wanna pass on the glass.

There is some good news, though. Viruses like herpes don’t do very well outside the body (on hard surfaces, in liquids, etc.), surviving for about 10 seconds. Cold and flu viruses, on the other hand, can survive for a number of hours. So while we all likely worry about cold sores a bit more, it might be wiser to watch out for folks sneezing into their Schlitzes.

Bear in mind, none of these diseases are the plague, or SARS, so while panic may seem like a normal response,  your best bet is to stay calm, stay away from the internet, and maybe sanitize your hands if someone with a hacking cough or runny nose hands you something.

(And a quick PS to calm the panic: over 50% of adults in the States have oral herpes, and many got it when they were kids, the unintended gift from an adult giving a big smooch hello. It’s manageable, nothing to stigmatize or fully bolt away from. That said, if someone sneezes into their hand and then tries to high five you, you have our full permission to slap them.)