EtOH Medical Abbreviation

EtOH is a synonym for ethanol or ethyl alcohol. In this article we'll walk through a high-level overview of EtOH including the ways you may encounter the chemical compound in your medical career.


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What is EtOH?

EtOH may be used as a shorthand abbreviation, but it is also a way to describe the molecular formula of ethanol, C2H5OH, sometimes written as C2H6O. Breaking down the two components of EtOH:

  • Et, short for Ethyl, indicates the presence of two carbon atoms in the structure (C2); all two-carbon compounds start with the prefix "eth", e.g. ethyl bromide
  • OH represents the hydroxyl group or oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom

All alcohol compounds chemically have both these carbon atoms and these hydroxyl groups, hence the EtOH. There are several types of alcohols, primary, secondary and tertiary, distinguished by the number of carbons in the structure and how they are bonded to the hydroxyl group.

Ethanol / EtOH Formula

What is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a clear flammable liquid that is the primary alcohol present in alcoholic beverages including beer, wine, and spirits. The CDC describes the smell of alcohol as vinous and pungent(1).

Ethanol is created through the process of fermentation of sugars by small single-celled microorganisms called yeast. In simple terms, yeast fermentation is the metabolism of carbohydrates by yeast, converting sugars into energy, and producing ethanol as a byproduct.

Synonyms for Ethanol (EtOH)

Some of the other common synonyms for ethanol include the following:

  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Grain alcohol
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Denatured ethanol
  • Ethyl hydrate

Outside of a medical setting, ethanol may simply be referred to as alcohol. However, ethanol is more precisely one of several primary types of alcohol.

The official chemical name as designated by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) is ethanol not ethyl alcohol.

EtOH on Nursing Charts

Nurse Reviewing Patient Chart

As pointed out by some of our experienced nurses in the discussion succeeding this article, a patient with EtOH or ETOH written in their medical history could be indicative that the patient suffers from alcoholism or alcohol dependency.

Alternatively, EtOH in patient notes could be describing that the patient is currently intoxicated, or believed to be intoxicated and not necessarily alcohol dependent or a habitual user. In a similar manner, you may also see notes such as:

  • Positive EtOH
  • EtOH positive or 
  • EtOH on board

All of these likely indicate the patient is currently under the influence of alcohol. EtOH and the fully capitalized version, ETOH, are often used interchangeably in nursing.

Effects of Alcohol Consumption

The detrimental impact of alcohol on the brain, heart, pancreas, liver and other body organs has been widely known and studied(2). While there are some potential health benefits of moderate alcohol intake, research is unclear as to whether the benefits of moderate drinking outweigh the risks(3).

Consistent alcohol consumption, but specifically excessive drinking—including heavy drinking and/or binge drinking—is a primary cause(4) of over 30 serious medical conditions and a contributing factor to many more. Heavy drinking(5) is defined by the CDC as 8 or more drinks per week for a woman or 15 or more drinks per week for a man.

Even though roughly 25% of American adults(6) drink excessively, 90% of these excessive drinkers do not meet the criteria for alcohol dependency(7).

Symptoms and Signs of Alcohol Dependency

Alcohol Dependency

Roughly 10% of excessive drinkers have a physiologic dependence on alcohol due to their chronic intake and misuse of alcohol. The physiologic dependence results in physical symptoms, especially during withdrawal period(8). These symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Shakiness and tremors, especially of the extremities
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations, and delirium tremens(9)
  • Tachycardia(10) and elevated blood pressure

Alcohol Deaths

From 2015-2019 more than 140,000 people die on average each year(11), from excessive alcohol use (U.S. only). Of those deaths, approximately 60% were due to chronic causes with the remaining 40% considered acute. Some of the leading causes of alcohol-attributed death include (not exhaustive)(12):


  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Liver cancer
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Stroke


  • Automobile crashes
  • Drowning
  • Fall injuries attributed to alcohol

Nurses must always be on the lookout for signs of alcohol dependence and alcohol misuse given the relatively widespread presence of emergencies related to alcohol consumption.

Nursing and Clinical Uses for EtOH

Ethanol is an effective disinfectant, according to the CDC, used or potentially used to disinfect the following(13):

  • Thermometers
  • Scissors
  • Stethoscopes
  • Small surfaces via alcohol towelettes
  • Equipment such as ultrasound instruments, ventilators, etc.

Ethanol is generally considered to be superior to isopropyl alcohol(14), also known as rubbing alcohol. However, neither isopropyl nor ethanol are recommended for sterilizing surgical materials, as wound infections have been documented. 

Surgical sterilization naturally requires the utmost care and thus the FDA's cleared list of sterilants includes chemicals such as peracetic acid and glutaraldehyde(15)


EtOH, ETOH, or simply alcohol, is one of the most common chemicals you'll come across in your nursing career, especially as it relates to patient conditions. It's important to ensure you're prepared to provide proper clinical care for those dealing with EtOH-related conditions.

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Specializes in Vascular Neurology and Neurocritical Care. Has 11 years experience.

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol I think. If I am not mistaken we refer to general alcohol as ETOH because it is the main component.


901 Posts

Has 5 years experience.

If it is listed in the pt's history where I work it means they are an alcoholic.

Specializes in ED, Neuro, Management, Clinical Educator. Has 8 years experience.

Ethanol. The abbreviation comes from its molecular structure.

There are many kinds of alcohols. All of them have an Oxygen (O) and Hydrogen (H) molecule (thus the OH at the end of the term "ETOH.")

The type of alcohol is determined/named by the number of carbon molecules. The alcohol in intoxicating beverages has two carbon molecules. Anything with two carbons gets the prefix "Ethyl." So, the chemical is referred to as either Ethanol or Ethyl Alcohol, and is often just abbreviated "ETOH."

In a clinical context, "ETOH" as part of a history indicates chronic alcoholism. If you see "ETOH on board" or "positive ETOH" it means the patient is intoxicated at that time, i.e. a patient presents to the ED and the medics tell you "restrained driver involved in a two car MVC, positive ETOH."


4 Posts

Has 4 years experience.

Thanks heaps everyone! I shall sleep easier not wondering now :)

Esme12, ASN, BSN, RN

4 Articles; 20,908 Posts

Specializes in Critical Care, ED, Cath lab, CTPAC,Trauma. Has 43 years experience.

Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol, or drinking alcohol, is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid. It is a powerful psychoactive drug and one of the oldest recreational drugs. Best known as the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, it is also used in thermometers, as a solvent, and as an alcohol fuel. in common usage, it is often referred to simply as alcohol or spirits.

Ethanol is a straight-chain alcohol, and its molecular formula is c2h5oh. It's empirical formula is c2h6o. an alternative notation is ch3–ch2–oh, which indicates that the carbon of a methyl group (ch3–) is attached to the carbon of a methylene group (–ch2–), which is attached to the oxygen of a hydroxyl group (–oh). It is a constitutional isomer of dimethyl ether. ethanol is often abbreviated as etoh, using the common organic Chemistry notation of representing the ethyl group (c2h5) with et.


6,011 Posts

Specializes in ORTHOPAEDICS-CERTIFIED SINCE 89. Has 30 years experience.

It means that the patient drinks alcohol=ETOH

I was taught to multiply by 10 the number of drinks a patient claims he drinks. "Oh I drink 1 beer a day? Think 5-10

Another abbreviation some old doctors use inn COOH. for alcohol.


218 Posts

Don't ever be embarrassed to ask a question. I started out working as a cna after leaving my previous profession (which I had a bachelor's degree for) and i knew nothing. I wasn't stupid (even though i got stupid looks sometimes) but being as though i had never stepped foot into a hospital and hadn't started nursing school yet - I was literally clueless. I had to ask what pna meant (pneumonia)- what tah meant (total abdominal hysterectomy) - what etoh meant (alcohol) - what mvc meant (motor vehicle crash).

I mean, how would you know unless you ask?

Medical terminology is so unique in that the abbreviations used (for the most part) sound nothing like the actual word! Is there a letter "c" in the word with? Yes, I asked what the letter "c" meant too.

You can't know unless you ask! Say to your co-worker, "I know this might sound stupid, but what does etoh mean?" most people are glad that you ask and appreciate that much more than if you pretend as if you know everything.

I had a little tension at first with co-workers bc I was "educated" i think they assumed I thought i was "smart" so I think my asking them questions and giving them the chance to teach me made them feel good. Try it.

Know this is probably really dumb, but, could ETOH be called "ethyl hydroxide?" (I hate when chemicals dont have a nice neat name). Every ETOH patient I encounter has only had--to their desperately sincere recollection, of course--only two or three drinks. Heh. I wouldn't necessarily multiply by 2, but I'd immediately consider them to have ETOH hx. It's a deep disease man. :/

WIN007 said:
Technically Ethanyl alcohol. It's the chemical abbreviation. should be etOH I think.

It's ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, CH3CH2OH, and in Chem it's abbreviated EtOH, but in Nursing you'll see it as ETOH, typically meaning that the pt is an alcoholic (or intoxicated).

dishes, BSN, RN

3,950 Posts

ETOH use is part of a comprehensive medical history, alcohol use, does not typically mean alcohol abuse.


1 Post

It stands for excessive traces of alcohol. The OH part of the abreviation is related to its periodic number in the chart of elements.