- A spike in alcohol sales has alarmed health experts and officials around the world.
- Increased drinking can make people even more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like COVID-19.
- Those who have any of the known risk factors for COVID-19, like diabetes or heart disease, should drink even less.
Alcohol has been flying off the shelves as people try to combat boredom during lockdown, with some reports estimating that alcoholic beverage sales surged by 55 percent toward the end of March.
The spike in alcohol sales has alarmed health experts and officials around the world, who are concerned that increased drinking could make people even more vulnerable to the respiratory disease.
The U.S. surgeon general warned at-risk adults to refrain from drinking. Soon after, the World Health Organization (WHO) also suggested that people cut back on drinking, since alcohol can increase the risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19.
“Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19. In particular, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes,” the WHO stated.
Though there’s still limited data on the link between alcohol and COVID-19, past evidence shows alcohol consumption can worsen the outcomes from other respiratory illnesses by damaging the lungs and gut, and impairing the cells responsible for immune function.
Drinking impairs immune cells in key organs
When someone is exposed to a virus, the body mounts an immune response to attack and kill the foreign pathogen.
In general, the healthier a person’s immune system is, the quicker it can clear out a virus and recover from a disease like COVID-19.
By default, alcohol makes it harder for the immune system to gear up and defend the body against harmful germs.
“Alcohol has diverse adverse effects throughout the body, including on all cells of the immune system, that lead to increased risk of serious infections,” said Dr. E. Jennifer Edelman, a Yale Medicine addiction medicine specialist.
In the lungs, for example, alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that have the important job of clearing pathogens out of our airway.
“If the cells lining a person’s airway are damaged from alcohol, then viral particles, such as COVID-19, more easily gain access, causing immune cells, which fight off infection, to not work as well, leading to increased overall risks of more severe diseases as well as complications,” said Dr. Alex Mroszczyk-McDonald, a practicing family physician in Southern California.
Similarly, alcohol can
“Alcohol intake can kill normal healthy gut bacteria, which help to promote health and reduce risk of infection,” Mroszczyk-McDonald said.
When the body is unable to clear a pathogen, an infection can worsen and lead to more severe, life threatening complications.
Many health experts assume the same may be true with COVID-19.
“With COVID-19, alcohol is likely to interfere with an individual’s ability to clear SARS-CoV-2 and cause people to suffer worse outcomes, including ARDS, which commonly results in death,” Edelman said.
Alcohol distracts the body from other functions
Drinking also makes it harder for your body to properly tend to its other critical functions, like fighting off a disease.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, once you take a sip of alcohol, your body prioritizes breaking down alcohol over several other bodily functions. The body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol like it does with carbohydrates and fats, so it has to immediately send it to the liver, where it’s metabolized.
In addition, alcohol is known to impair sleep quality. And the less sleep a person gets, the higher their risk for getting sick.
A lack of sleep can also affect how long it takes for a person to recover if they do get sick, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How much is too much?
According to Mroszczyk-McDonald, it’s unclear how much alcohol is too much and when it starts to impair the immune system.
Past data shows binge drinking can have a massive effect on the immune system.
“Research has shown that high doses of alcohol (around 14 drinks per week or more than five to six drinks at a time) does directly suppress the immune system, and that alcohol abuse is associated with increased risk of infectious diseases,” Mroszczyk-McDonald said.
Mroszczyk-McDonald advises against drinking more than a couple times a week, and only having two to three drinks at a time.
For those who have a risk factor for COVID-19, like heart disease or diabetes, he recommends drinking even less.
“Those at increased risk should cut down or abstain from alcohol because every little thing an individual can do to improve the health and reduce risk is worth it at this point, even if the evidence is not entirely clear,” Mroszczyk-McDonald said.
The bottom line
The World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. surgeon general have warned people to avoid drinking too much alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alcohol can have a range of harmful effects on the body, which can diminish a person’s immune response and put them more at risk for COVID-19.
Consequently, health experts recommend drinking no more than a couple times a week, if that.
Those who have any of the known risk factors for COVID-19, like heart disease or diabetes, should drink even less.
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