How Does Alcohol Affect COPD?

We are often asked whether drinking is particularly bad for COPD sufferers. As with so many things related to COPD, there’s no simple yes or no answer. But here are the many aspects of alcohol intake and COPD that you should consider:

First, alcohol intake doesn’t just affect COPD. Drinking can affect emotional state, breathing function, sleep patterns, and nutrition.

It’s common for your physician to approve of having a glass of wine at night.  But more than that level of intake can cause problems, such as a reactive depression. Ironically, alcohol is often used acutely to relieve feelings of depression.  However, over time it can exacerbate depression, creating a damaging cycle.

Alcohol also is a respiratory depressant. This could mean that for a short time, drinking will relieve symptoms of shortness of breath, but this is a dangerous form of self-medication.  The respiratory depression can increase the buildup of carbon dioxide, which can sedate a COPD sufferer more than a non-sufferer would experience from the same alcohol intake. If a patient has severe COPD, the body no longer adequately responds to a buildup of carbon dioxide by naturally increasing the breathing rate to get rid of this waste product. Excessive alcohol intake could even cause a loss of consciousness.

Alcohol also interferes with sleep. As with depression, alcohol can create a seemingly beneficial effect while actually causing the opposite result. While alcohol may help someone get to sleep, it often disrupts sleep a few hours later, and there’s no hard and fast rule as to how much alcohol will cause this problem. Just one glass of wine with dinner can cause sleep problems for some patients with COPD.

Finally there’s the issue of nutrition. A moderate to heavy drinker may be replacing food with the empty calories of alcohol, which is damaging to one’s body overall. There is also the issue of the manner of food intake. Patients suffering from severe COPD are often advised to eat 5 small meals a day rather than 3 large meals to help stave off shortness of breath after eating. A drinker may eat more rapidly than normal, or consume a large quantity of food in one sitting without being aware of how much he’s eating, causing unnecessary breathing problems.

If you believe that alcohol may be causing you to experience depression, sleep disturbances, or poor eating habits, consult your physician and discuss your situation openly. You cannot get help if you don’t share your problem.

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