I had today an experiment that we put 95% alcohol to the blood which made it completely transparent so hemolysis must have occurred. I started to think about the reasons.

I think that this is because alcohol dissolved the lipid membrane of cells outside of the cell. Alcohol molecule is also very small. I think that I can go through the bilayer too. So I started to think that the other possible reason was that alcohol went inside the cell so caused

  • dissolution of the membrane from the inner side
  • increase in the volume of the cell so bursting

What are the main reasons why Alcohol cause hemolysis to the red blood cell?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Off hand I'd say your guess was a good one. Most cells will fall apart when put into that much alcohol. Note that biological standpoint, even 1% is too much alcohol for a human being to survive. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 13:10

2 Answers 2


Well, it turns out the situation is more complex. I had assumed the answer was what rwst suggests or something to do with osmotic pressure. It seems that we don't really know that well.

In a paper from 1991, Chi and Wu suggest the following possible mechanisms :

  1. Membrane fusion during the shedding of exovesicles might produce a transient decrease of the permeability barrier.

  2. Increase of lipid dynamics by the alcohol could decrease the packing of the bilayer. The membrane barrier behaves like a soft polymer, which can sieve solutes. The meshes in the polymer might become larger if its packing density is reduced.

  3. Lateral phase separation of lipids could induce packing defects in the lipid domain. This has been observed for long chain alcohols and postulated to be responsible for the increase of membrane permeability by amphiphiles.

  4. Increase of the dielectric constant of the membrane by the alcohol would also increase the partition of hydrophilic solutes into the membranes. Such an increase has been postulated to be responsible for the increase of the permeability by aliphatic alcohols.

  5. Modification of the intrinsic membrane domain might follow modification of the membrane skeleton by the alcohol. Accordingly, aggregation of intrinsic proteins might cause membrane modification mentioned under point 2 to 4.

The authors state that it is not possible to decide between the various possibilities, but they seem to prefer point 5:

Although it is not possible to decide between the various possibilities from the present data, we showed that the release of membrane fragments from ethanol-treated RBC was not a requirement for the creation of membrane pores since it occurred at a time much later than the detection of K ÷ leakage. In addition, we found that changes of membane rheological properties preceded the permeability increase. These properties have been related to the membrane skeletal protein spectrin. Moreover, ethanol has been shown to affect the skeleton. The processes leading to the formation of pores in ethanol-treated RBC may thus relate to a deranged cytoskeletal network, followed by the aforementioned alteration of membrane properties.

The plot thickens, apparently, low concentrations of alcohol protect erythrocytes from hemolysis while higher concentrations can cause it. The following are extracts from Tyulina et al:

The seeming paradox between the direct haemolytic effect of ethanol on erythrocytes (Fig. 1) and the stabilizing effect of ethanol on erythrocytes undergoing NaOCl-induced haemolysis (Fig. 2) could be explained by the relatively small destabilizing effect of ethanol which is observed (<1% haemolysis) over 16 h. This effect would be negligible in the short time period (generally <10 min) assay for NaOCl-induced haemolysis where 100% of the cells are haemolysed. An alternative explanation for this paradox is that the mechanisms of haemolysis induced by ethanol and NaOCl are different.


It therefore appears that ethanol does not induce significant oxidative stress in the human erythrocyte, and these data are in agreement with previous studies (Seeman et al., 1971), in which it was found that low ethanol concentrations could protect erythrocytes against haemolysis. Although the mechanism for this protective effect is unknown, it has previously been suggested (Halliwell and Gutteridge, 1999) that ethanol can serve as a hydrogen donor in the elimination of the hydroxyl radical with formation of water and the 2-hydroxyethyl radical.

The authors then state (emphasis mine):

In summary, we conclude that the damage to erythrocytes which occurs on in vitro exposure to ethanol may be caused, at least in part, by unmetabolized ethanol directly, rather than by the oxidation of ethanol to acetaldehyde or its conversion to FAEE.

I would guess this "direct effect" is something very much like what rwst suggested but the fact that the authors, who clearly work in this field, do not say so makes me think that the situation is more complex.

So, in conclusion, the exact details of alcohol's hemolytic properties don't seem to be understood in great detail. Admittedly, neither of these articles is very recent, if anyone can find a more up to date account I would love to read it.


Chi LM, Wu WG. Mechanism of hemolysis of red blood cell mediated by ethanol. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1991 Feb 11;1062(1):46-50.

Tyulina OV, Prokopieva VD, Dodd RD, Hawkins JR, Clay SW, Wilson DO, Boldyrev AA, Johnson P. In vitro effects of ethanol, acetaldehyde and fatty acid ethyl esters on human erythrocytes. Alcohol Alcohol. 2002 Mar-Apr;37(2):179-86.

Trandum C, Westh P, Jørgensen K, Mouritsen OG. Association of ethanol with lipid membranes containing cholesterol, sphingomyelin and ganglioside: a titration calorimetry study. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1999 Aug 20;1420(1-2):179-88.

  • $\begingroup$ So the point 5 is about the proteins in the membrane that alcohol will modify. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ Yes @Masi that is my understanding. But also a resulting perturbation of the cytoskeleton. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 15:23

Ethanol, in less than 50% concentration, emulgates lipids and, through interference with hydrogen bonds, leads to conformational changes in proteins. Higher concentrations lead to denaturation of proteins and osmolysis of cells through small defects, so they finally burst, as ethanol forces a concentration equilibrium. This is why it's a good desinfection substance. But you could use any other small molecule polar solvent.



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