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.