Alcohol is a substance that affects many areas of the body, including the lungs. The airways in the human body are made up of many parts, and alcohol can affect all of them. Alcohol can affect the upper part of the airways, including the nose, sinuses, voice box and throat. It can also affect the lower part of the airways, like the windpipe and lungs.
People who struggle with alcohol use are at risk for lung issues and other airway problems. This risk is especially real for people who use alcohol heavily. Heavy drinking means more than one drink a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men.
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Alcohol Effects on Lungs
Heavy alcohol use can cause damage to the lungs in a few different ways. It can interfere with the immune system that keeps the lungs healthy and able to fight off infections. It can also harm the surface cells that line the insides of the lungs.
Every day, a person inhales things in the air from which the lungs and immune system try to protect them. Parts of the lungs are even lined with moving, hair-like cells called cilia whose job it is to sweep things inhaled out of the lungs. Heavy alcohol use harms this whole process.
Alcohol’s damage to lung cells and the immune system is so well known that it is a syndrome termed alcoholic lung. One study showed that chronic alcohol use can start to harm the lungs in as little as six weeks.
Alcohol can also cause inflammation and harm cells in both the upper and lower parts of the airway. It’s not the alcohol in its liquid form that does this, it is actually the vapor. Alcohol, after all, is an irritating chemical.
After a person drinks alcohol, besides going into the bloodstream, some of it will diffuse out into the lungs and end up in the breath. Breathalyzer tests work because the alcohol is partly breathed out in vapor form. But when it is in vapor form, then it is free to cause damage to the airway. This damage happens not only in the lungs but also in the nasal passages and sinuses, causing inflammation and making them less able to fight off infection.
Alcohol can harm the lungs too by harming some of the body’s reflexes. When someone is drunk, their gag reflex is harmed. Usually, the gag reflex stops people from inhaling food, drinks, or spit into the lungs. However, since the gag reflex does not work as well when someone is drunk, they might inhale these items into the lungs. This process is known as aspiration and can both damage the lungs and cause infection.
Alcohol can also increase a person’s risk of experiencing a bacterial infection because alcohol kills some of the bacteria that are normally found in the mouth and throat. By killing the normal bacteria there, alcohol use allows bacteria that don’t normally belong there to grow instead. These bacteria can be dangerous, especially when breathed in.
Diseases Caused By Alcohol
Alcohol is linked to many airway diseases and conditions including:
- Pneumonia: an infection of the lungs which can be caused by bacteria or a virus and is one of the top ten causes of death in America. People who struggle with alcohol use are more likely to have severe forms of pneumonia and are more likely to have complications from it as well. They are also more likely to have infections from more dangerous kinds of bacteria than people who do not drink alcohol.
- Respiratory syncytial virus (also known as RSV): a virus that alcohol can cause or worsen which can lead to pneumonia in both children as well as adults with weak lungs or weak immune systems.
- Tuberculosis (also known as TB): an infection of the lungs caused by a specific kind of bacteria. Although some people with TB may have no symptoms, some people — especially people with a weak immune system, which alcohol can cause — may get an infection which can be deadly. Sadly, TB is the second-leading cause of death in the world.
- Aspiration: the process by which someone inhales spit, food or drink into their lungs, and can lead to infections like pneumonia.
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (also known as ARDS): a severe condition that kills up to 50 percent of people who get it and is caused by fluid build-up in the lungs.
- Asthma: Although there is a big debate about the role of alcohol in asthma, studies have shown that at least some people with asthma have worse symptoms after they drink alcohol.
- Sepsis: a severe and potentially deadly blood infection that can happen as a complication of pneumonia or other infections.
Mehta AJ, Guidot DM. “Alcohol and the Lung.” Published in 2017. Accessed March 2019.
Simet SM, Sisson JH. “Alcohol’s Effects on Lung Health and Immunity.” Published in 2015. Accessed in March 2019.
Kershaw CD, Guidot DM. “Alcoholic Lung Disease.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008. Accessed March 11, 2019.