What Happens When You Drink Alcohol with COPD?

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, of course you’re told that you should eat healthy, exercise, get adequate sleep, and avoid triggers such as pollen if you have allergies. Must you extend this whole “live a clean and healthy life” regimen to alcohol consumption as well? Or can you go ahead and have a drink when you want to, without affecting your COPD symptoms?

The first advice is to consult with your doctor. He or she knows your symptoms, your level of fitness and general health, and can give you the best advice on the subject. However, it’s good to educate yourself as well. Here are some things to know about drinking when you have COPD:

Alcohol Lowers Glutathione Levels

Glutathione is an antioxidant that’s found within the lungs, and when you drink alcoholic beverages, the alcohol in them will lower your glutathione levels. This can lead to COPD flare-ups. The probability and possibly the severity of such flare-ups can be worsened if you drink and you also smoke cigarettes. One of the things that glutathione does is help protect your lungs from tobacco smoke.

Alcohol Decreases Lung Function

Chronic ingestion of alcohol actually damages the surface of your lungs; and it’s on the surface that the mucociliary transport system operates, attracting mucus and eradicating it from your lungs. This system is damaged by ongoing alcohol use, and does not operate as well as it should. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult for you to expel mucus from your lungs. This can worsen your shortness of breath.

Alcohol Acts As A Respiratory Depressant

Drinking alcohol can make you feel less bothered by breathlessness for a little while, but this can be dangerous, because while you may not feel as much discomfort, still you are experiencing the same lowering of oxygen saturation in the blood that may bother you when completely sober. This lowering of oxygen can lead to an excess buildup of carbon dioxide in the lungs.

Carbon dioxide buildup is bad for anyone, but it’s especially harmful for COPD patients, because their lungs, damaged by the disease, cannot respond properly to the buildup by increasing their breathing rate to expel the excess carbon dioxide. The result? You become even more sedated than would a non-COPD patient who consumed the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol Can Interfere With Your Medications

Alcohol is known to interfere with many COPD medications such as glucocorticoids and antibiotics. Even small amounts of alcohol can have this effect. Similarly, the effects of anxiety and pain medications could be increased, causing your heart and breathing rates to slow down dangerously, even to the point of death.

Alcohol Can Damage Sleep

Many people feel that a drink at night helps them fall asleep, and this may be true, but it’s also true that alcohol can cause you to wake up often during the night. This reduces both the quantity and the quality of sleep that you get in a night. Alcohol further acts as a diuretic, causing you to urinate more frequently. This can result in a headache and dry mouth and throat.

As a COPD patient, it’s very important that you get an adequate night’s sleep each and every day.

Alcohol Can Lead to Poor Nutrition

If you’re a moderate to heavy drinker, you could be substituting alcohol for other more nutritious sources of calories, causing a general degradation in the quality of nutrition you take in.

On the other hand, you might find that you eat more when you drink than when you’re sober, resulting in overeating, which can cause shortness of breath, and which can lead to overweight in the long run; another contributor to shortness of breath.

Alcohol Can Increase Your Risk of Respiratory Infection

According to a study done by ATSJournals, heavy alcohol consumption may cause an increased risk of respiratory infections. This may be due to the adverse effect of alcohol on your immune system mediators. Interestingly, though, some of the data from the study suggested that light to moderate drinkers might actually have lower rates of exacerbations and longer periods of time before a first exacerbation than minimal drinkers.

Should You Avoid Alcohol Entirely?

That’s not a question that can be answered with a blanket declamation. For example, there are many studies that show that the antioxidants in a glass of red wine may help prevent coronary artery disease, and therefore a glass of red wine every day may be beneficial.

Our advice? Don’t discount the potential harm that alcohol can cause you as a COPD patient. Understand the potential risks. Do talk with your doctor about your alcohol consumption, and follow the advice that he or she gives you.

Information for this article was obtained from the COPD Store and ATS Journals.


  • Avatar
    Posted at 10:10h, 01 September Reply

    I like this article very much! I find many things ppl need to know!!

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      Posted at 10:34h, 01 September Reply

      We’re glad you find it helpful!

  • Avatar
    Heidi McCray
    Posted at 21:55h, 01 September Reply

    I love these articles. As my COPD progresses I know I may not realize the speed it progresses. I am still learning as much as I can. These articles aid me in being proactive and taking positive steps to understand this disease and taking care of myself. I also developed Lupus which also has its breathing problems as a “gift” to me! Thankfully I have a great medical team and a wonderful place to speak to others and express my true emotions. MyCopd team . Net is a great place to vent. There I have made many online friends that I can be happy with when I have good days and they do too! We can express our frustrations with each other without being judged, everyone from around the world is so supportive and it is great to learn from each other what they have gone through or now dealing with as the disease progresses. Takes away the fears of the unknown so when we get to whatever level the disease takes us to we are more confident. Great website! Come join your fellow “Gaspers” so we can help one another. Okay… getting off my town platform.

    • Avatar
      Posted at 19:35h, 11 September Reply

      What a positive and proactive attitude you bring to your COPD, Heidi, and we’re glad that our articles are helping you along with the other support you’ve found. We think the group support website you referenced is found at https://www.mycopdteam.com/. Is that the one you meant to share?

    • Avatar
      Frieda E. Charron
      Posted at 08:49h, 14 July Reply

      I was diagnosed with COPD two years ago. I have never smoked a day in my life. I’ve been a Hair Designer for over fifty years and I was told that the injestion of hair sprays and hair coloring over such a long period is what caused me to have this disease. We live in an area that has little medical services.
      I’m on two inhalers and a med called sinigular. I’ve always had alot of energy but I find that almost everything that I do that I’m gasping for air. It seems that it progresses pretty fast. I’m looking for as much information as I can get to learn more about this disease.

      • Avatar
        Harry Rossiter
        Posted at 13:58h, 17 July Reply

        Dear Frieda,

        You can be helped to feel much better, but not from any website. Even if I provided several pages of information, I would be doing you an injustice. You need to see a pulmonologist (a doctor who deals with lung problems), if only to get a better diagnosis! Ask your current physician for a referral for a consultation with a pulmonologist. If your physician does not personally know a pulmonologist, one can be found listed on-line in the nearest city, medical center, or university. You can look on the internet and find much information of interest on any doctor you are referred to, or even find someone yourself if your current physician can’t help. Yes, you may need to take off a day from work to keep an appointment, but it will be time well spent because Frieda, you CAN be helped! There is no reason for you to continue suffering as you are now, while facing the possibility of getting worse.

        Ask your doctor for copies of all your records, especially spirometry, pulmonary function tests, x-rays and lab work. Keep these records in a file to which you can refer. By law, these records are yours. Your current doctor also should send this information to the pulmonologist you consult. You will need to sign a permission slip for this information to be provided to you and to the pulmonologist. Some doctors charge $10.00 or so, but most do not. When you prepare for your first pulmonologist visit, write down a list of all medications you take, including over-the-counter (OTC) medications, eye drops, vitamins etc. Try to think in advance what your symptoms are and why you wish to see a pulmonary doctor. Write down everything that bothers you in case you get nervous and forget what you want to discuss. Of special interest will be the amount of coughing you do, the sputum you cough up and the color of it. Does coughing and shortness of breath wake you up at night? Do you get short of breath and tired with activities you used to do without problems? Do you have GERD, that is, gastric reflux? All this and more will be of interest to the pulmonologist you see.

        Please make that request for a consultation as soon as possible! I hate to hear of someone suffering, as you are suffering. Keep remembering that you CAN be helped!

        Please keep us posted on how you are doing. We care.

        Mary Burns, RN, BS

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        Mary Stuart
        Posted at 18:28h, 14 January Reply

        Hi, Frieda, just came across your post. You should also be tested for alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a genetic condition that causes COPD, especially in never-smokers. If you have this, it is passed down from generation to generation so you will be helping your children/grandchildren/siblings as well!

        • Avatar
          Posted at 12:41h, 15 January Reply

          Dear Mary,

          If Freda goes to a specialist at a medical center for evaluation, as was recommended, you are correct that that alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency should be one of the problems checked for. However, your recommendation about alpha 1 testing is a good information not just for her, but for everyone. More of our readers need to become aware that a person can develop emphysema without being a smoker due to this inherited genetic condition. Thanks so much for your input. It is appreciated.

          Mary Burns, RN, BS

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    Posted at 13:40h, 02 September Reply

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    Jill Smith
    Posted at 00:20h, 14 January Reply

    My Dad has COPD and has had a heart stent put in Years ago and my cousin has been out there saying He is Trying to cough up phlegm she is talking about giving a little bit of whiskey and I told her don’t I am so glad I found this article how do I save it for her to read! Thank You so much for this article!

    • Avatar
      Posted at 14:37h, 25 January Reply

      Thank you for writing, Jill, and we’re glad you found this article helpful. To save a copy of this article for your cousin, you can print it; there are no restrictions on printing copies of the articles on our website. If you’re using a PC, you can print by pressing the CTRL button and then, while holding it down, clicking the letter “P” on your keyboard. You can also send your cousin this link to the article: https://perf2ndwind.org/what-happens-when-you-drink-alcohol-with-copd/

    • Avatar
      Frank Peters
      Posted at 17:55h, 06 January Reply

      I found that Whisky helps with the anxiety of COPD

      • Avatar
        Posted at 15:58h, 08 January Reply

        Dear Frank,

        You are not alone in having feelings of anxiety after being given the diagnosis of COPD, or in feeling that alcohol helps relieve some of your anxiety. Neither issue should be ignored or brushed off. You can benefit from help, and that help is available. While you should check with your physician on your whiskey consumption and anxiety, let’s mention several issues that were not covered in that article.

        First, how much whiskey you are drinking every day? Do you drink a pint, maybe starting in the early afternoon, or do you have a drink or two before dinner? I’ll bet you know which answer is acceptable and you don’t need me to tell you. Drinking before you go to bed is tempting but not a good idea. Read that article again for the all the reasons why if you are not convinced.

        Now we can address the very real problem of your anxiety, which makes you resort to self medicating with the whiskey. You are not alone or unique. I have taken care of hundreds of patients and almost all admit to being nervous, scared, frightened or anxious when I first see them.

        Ignorance is not bliss! The more you know about your condition the better off you will be. While your physician is the first person to ask for detailed information about your condition, let’s face it, most doctors do not have the time you need to fully cover this. This is one reason why participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program is so valuable. Ask your physician if a referral to one might be considered for you.

        The next two big problems you probably have are shortness of breath and exercise limitation. Here, once again, is where a pulmonary rehabilitation program comes in. After a four to six week program you should feel better than you have in years. But, the first few steps before that will be up to you. Make an appointment with your physician to discuss your problems. Ask if a referral to a pulmonary rehabilitation program is possible. If not, or if there is no program in your area, consider requesting a referral to a pulmonologist if you do not already see one.

        In the meantime, there is a wealth of information on our website with more information available every month for you to look through. Check your local area for support groups or pulmonary rehabilitation programs. And, feel free to write again.

        With best wishes for better health and less anxiety in the New Year,

        Mary Burns, RN, BS

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    Kathleen Kropf
    Posted at 09:43h, 25 March Reply

    Thank you so much now I realize what I’m doing to myself .Gonna make some changes

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    Posted at 17:30h, 08 June Reply

    The article talks like you drink a lot i like s glass of whiskey or 2 at night time thats all but i asked dr he said drink in mordenation is fine

    • Avatar
      Harry Rossiter
      Posted at 21:29h, 15 June Reply

      How wise of you to check with your physician regarding that drink or two you have every night. We agree with drinking alcohol in moderation but everyone is different. Checking with your doctor was the right thing to do. We are glad that you found our article thought provoking and hope those we have planned for the future will be also. Keep reading and stay in touch,

      Warm regards,

      Mary Burns, RN, BS

  • Avatar
    brenda odillon
    Posted at 15:11h, 28 June Reply

    I drink 12 to 18 beers a night. I find myself coughing and short of breath at times. Does this have anything to do with my drinking

    • Avatar
      Harry Rossiter
      Posted at 14:00h, 17 July Reply

      Dear Brenda

      You are to be congratulated on admitting the amount you drink and wondering if it is harmful. That must have been difficult for you. You probably are hoping that amount you drink is not really harmful, but I suspect you already know that answer. I will answer anyway. Yes, it is harmful. By responding to our blog on alcohol, you already have read some of the harmful effects that amount of alcohol causes, so I won’t go over all that again.

      You don’t say if you smoke, but that often goes along with heavy alcohol consumption. Judging by your coughing and your shortness of breath you may well have a lung problem. Only a physical examination by your doctor, and some testing, can give you that answer. In any case, your doctor can probably give you help for your coughing and shortness of breath.

      I suspect you haven’t recently seen a doctor to discuss these problems. Since you are concerned enough to ask these questions, you may may now be strong enough to accept that you do need help with your drinking, as well as with any lung problem you have. Help IS available for both problems! I congratulate you on trying to find it. That must have been hard, but it shows you have a lot more strength than you may realize. Please, please see your doctor to get that help you need and deserve.

      With best wishes for your future, and the hope that you stay in touch,

      Mary Burns, RN, BS

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    Posted at 21:33h, 18 July Reply

    I’ve read your article and I’ve learnt a few things thank u much as I myself is diagnose with c.o.p.d. I’m scared but I’ve learnt to accept whatever fate I have.thank u much.

    • Avatar
      Harry Rossiter
      Posted at 12:55h, 22 July Reply

      Dear Tracy,

      Don’t be scared and don’t accept what you assume to be your fate! There is so much that can be done to help you, no matter what your problem is, now that you have accepted the fact that you do have a problem! Don’t you know that, with your acceptance, you already have achieved a huge accomplishment? My wonderful Pulmonary Rehabilitation patient club, the PEP Pioneers, was started by an alcoholic (who no longer drank). And as far as COPD is concerned, there is a great deal that can be done to help you! A patient on oxygen was referred to us who had been bedridden for 6 months before he got up out bed and finished our 6 week pulmonary rehabilitation program. Eight or so months later, he walked the Torrance 5K Thanksgiving Turkey Trot—dragging his oxygen. Can I promise a similar amazing outcome for you? Of course not! But I can let you know a much better life is possible, so do NOT give up!

      Please know that a crucial first step to doing better is to find a doctor you feel comfortable with who will help guide you to available therapies.

      Mary Burns, RN, BS

  • Avatar
    Thomas Jameson
    Posted at 08:21h, 25 July Reply

    It’s good to know that alcohol damages the surface of your lungs and worsen your shortness of breath. My brother has been having some issues breathing due to his work environment. I’ll pass this information along to him so that he can avoid consuming alcohol and making the problem worse.

    • Avatar
      Posted at 10:27h, 26 July Reply

      Dear Tom,

      It is so nice of you to be concerned about your brother’s breathing problems! I assume he is not smoking since you didn’t mention that. Moderating alcohol intake is always a good idea, but unfortunately that probably won’t solve his breathing problems as alcohol consumption may well not be the cause of them. I highly recommend that your brother see a Pulmonologist (a lung specialist) to have his lungs tested and have his problem evaluated soon. Have him ask his primary care physician for a referral. Will he listen to you if you suggest that? I hope so! The air in his work environment may be the problem, or it could be something else, especially if he has a smoking history. We can’t suggest or offer more help without knowing more about what is going on. As a pulmonary nurse, I have taken care of far too many people gasping for air because they waited too long to see a doctor. Please don’t let your brother become another one of them.

      Feel free to write back if you have a question you think I can answer. Good luck in convincing your brother not to ignore his breathing problem!

      With best wishes,

      Mary Burns, RN, BS

  • Avatar
    Posted at 18:44h, 12 August Reply

    Recently diagnosed copd was so ignorant of the disease I started having panic attacks. The best I got from my MD was “stop worrying “. This info is a huge help for me.

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      Posted at 10:25h, 13 August Reply

      Dear Jen,

      Let me start by saying how lucky you are that you got this diagnosis now, in 2019! Forty years ago there would have been very limited help and a grim future for you. Now, there are all sorts of things that can be done to insure that you live out a normal, comfortable, life span, so there is absolutely no need to panic!

      I am glad you find our website and blogs of help. Keep reading and you will learn there are many things that will help, like starting an exercise regime that is tailored for you. However, the first thing thing we would suggest, is to see if your current physician, if not a pulmonologist, will give you a referral to a pulmonologist for a consultation. A pulmonologist is a lung specialist on the multiple conditions, with different levels of severity, that fall under the COPD umbrella. In addition to explaining tests like the pulmonary function, if not already done, your symptoms can then be discussed to see what can be suggested to start helping you feel much better.

      And you can feel much better, no matter what your symptoms are!

      Best wishes, with the hope that you now will no longer panic!

      Mary Burns, RN, BS

  • Avatar
    Posted at 10:30h, 03 September Reply

    My mom has brochiectasas. Is this a form of COPD and do the same things apply as far as alcohol consumption?

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      Posted at 10:34h, 06 September Reply

      Dear Dave,

      Bronchiectasis is a miserable respiratory disease and your mother has my sympathies for needing to deal with it. Bronchiectasis has similarities with COPD, and results in obstructed airways, difficulty emptying the lung and shortness of breath. Like asthma, however, bronchiectasis is not necessarily caused by smoking; although a smoker can also get it. Although the symptoms are similar, the biological effects of bronchiectasis and COPD actually differ. Unlike COPD, Bronchiectasis causes enlargement of the airways. The problem is that these enlarged airways can then become blocked with mucus and make breathing out difficult. So COPD and bronchiectasis are different but related diseases that occur separately, and can also coexist.

      The potential problems mentioned in our blog post about alcohol intake apply to all respiratory patients who drink alcohol to excess, as it also does to many other conditions also. It’s worth pointing out that no-one really knows how much alcohol intake is too much, in terms of worsening symptoms in respiratory patients. Some data support that mild alcohol intake can even reduce airway inflammation and enhance mucus clearance, but most agree that prolonged or heavy exposure to alcohol intake makes things worse for respiratory patients (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2081157/).

      I assume your mother has a pulmonologist caring for her with all the latest help now becoming available to help those with bronchiectasis. If you are concerned about the amount of alcohol that your mother is drinking, or even if she should be drinking at all, ask her to discuss this with her health care provider for the latest advice which will depend on her specific condition or even the medications she is taking.

      Your mother is fortunate to have a son concerned about her condition.

      Best Wishes,

      May Burns, RN, BS

  • Avatar
    Loyd Barnes
    Posted at 16:27h, 25 September Reply

    Thanks for site.
    I have 50% left. The alcohol helps me sleep. I stop breathing 20,or more times an hour if I’m on my back. I sleep longer if I’m slump forward in a chair. (Or am I just passed out?) I’m a lean man .I can cross my arms, elbows on knees, drop my head.i choked less in this position. I have a hard time with the apnia mask .

    • Avatar
      Posted at 16:31h, 03 October Reply

      Dear Loyd,

      I once tried on an apnea mask to help me better understand the problems my patients were having and did not like it at all! I will share with you some of the advice I got from my patients with obstructive sleep apnea, OSA, who needed the continuous pressure of the CPAP and were helped by it. There is no reason to accept a bad fitting mask. You need to complain to the therapist fitting the mask and insist on trying on new ones until you get one that is reasonably comfortable. If this therapist can’t help you, ask for another therapist or ask your physician to refer you to another company.

      Sleeping on your back, by itself, can cause obstructive apnea in some people when, to simplify a more complicated explanation, throat muscles relax and the tongue falls back blocking the airway. As you have been told, alcohol makes this problem worse, or can even cause it. In addition, while alcohol at first makes you sleepy, the effects wear off after several hours and may awaken you, even if you didn’t have OSA. You are fortunate you don’t have the additional problem of being over weight.

      Some old fashioned remedies that were probably suggested are propping yourself on your side with a pillow to prevent sleeping on your back, or using a belt with rolled towel or pillow around your chest inside you pajama top. Amazon sells a variety of different types of sleep belts. This, in theory, should wake you enough to cause you to roll on your side again and prevent you from waking up. With time, it is hoped you might get you used to sleeping on your side without these props. Sleeping in a chair also helps keep your airways open but most certainly is also not a recommended solution to your problem.

      Unfortunately, the bottom line is that you have a serious problem that needs the advice and attention of a pulmonary physician sleep specialist to help you feel better. We hope you make an appointment as soon as possible.

      With best wishes,

      Mary Burns, RN, BS

  • Avatar
    Mark A Sanders
    Posted at 20:21h, 11 April Reply

    I was diagnosed at the age of 32 with COPD. I kept smoking on and off for 5 years with no issues. Im concerned now that its getting worst due to drinking to sedate the pain. Have more frequent excerbations.

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      Posted at 17:20h, 13 May Reply

      Dear Mark,

      I am so sorry that you were diagnosed with COPD at the age of 32 and no one convinced you of the need to quit smoking. Congratulations at finally succeeding! I know from personal experience how hard that is to do. I hope you were also tested for Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD), which is a genetic cause of COPD that sometimes is the reason for developing COPD at a young age. Since you didn’t mention it, I suspect you may not have been. The Alpha-1 Foundation has information about how to get tested, either through your physician or by free confidential testing (https://www.alpha1.org/newly-diagnosed/learning-about-alpha-1/testing-for-alpha-1/). I suggest that you request a test as soon as possible.

      You should also get a referral to a pulmonologist, if you don’t already have one. I have heard COPD referred to as premature aging of the lungs. As we age our lung function unfortunately tends to decline, but only your pulmonologist can provide that information for you with updated testing and a thorough physical. If you have a primary physician that is a good place to start in finding a pulmonologist.

      I don’t understand why you are self medicating with alcohol because of pain. One of the problems with COPD is that is not painful – it often goes unnoticed for years. Perhaps you are referring to other pains? Alcohol alone is not the reason for these problems. Learning the cause of your pain is another very important reason for you to get a referral to the appropriate specialist physician. You need that thorough physical plus additional testing as soon as possible. And you need to find the reason for the pain, and for your exacerbations, as well as for getting prescriptions for the medications necessary to help you.

      Unfortunately, you have too many problems for me to attempt further suggestions. No website could possibly give you the advice you need, other than stressing the importance of seeing a pulmonologist as soon as possible. I am so glad you reached out to us for help. Admitting that you have a problem can be very hard to do, so congratulate yourself for taking that first step to getting better. Help is available! If you live in a small town without a pulmonologist contact the pulmonary division of the nearest University Medical Center. Don’t worry if it is not nearby. They can do the initial workup and then refer you back to your primary physician if you wish.

      Please get back to me and let us know how you are doing. We are interested and we do care.

      Mary Burns RN, BS

  • Avatar
    Posted at 23:08h, 16 August Reply

    Hi perf2ndwind.org,

    Yes indeed it is very dangerous to consume alcohol when you had medication. Thank you for sharing us your blog and keep us updated again.

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