People who drink often smoke, which can make it challenging to distinguish a relationship between drinking alcohol and developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
However, the currently established links between COPD and alcohol use are significant enough that they may discourage people at risk of COPD from drinking.
No research has proved that drinking alcohol causes COPD, but some evidence suggests that drinking has specific adverse effects on people with the condition.
Alcohol and smoking as risk factors
Smoking is the biggest risk factor for COPD. According to the American Lung Association, 85–90 percent of COPD cases result from smoking, either directly or secondhand.
The link between smoking and drinking
Some evidence suggests that drinking alcohol can have adverse effects on people with COPD.
Behavioral patterns link drinking alcohol with smoking.
Of course, not everyone who drinks also smokes. However, anyone who is quitting smoking to reduce their risk of COPD may wish to avoid drinking.
People likely to smoke when they drink may also wish to avoid alcohol.
COPD and alcohol
The medical community recognizes a link between alcohol abuse and lung disorders.
Authors of a 2016 study, published in the journal Alcohol, concluded that people with alcohol use disorder are more likely to experience lung injury and respiratory infections.
Regular, heavy alcohol consumption may also decrease lung capacity in people who already have lung problems. It may also increase difficulty clearing mucus from the lungs.
Can alcohol damage healthy lungs?
The American National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports conclusions of animal studies that identify a link between drinking and lung injury.
The researchers found that heavy drinking reduces levels of an antioxidant called glutathione. This antioxidant helps protect the lungs from damage caused by inhaled toxins, such as tobacco smoke.
Authors of another study identified a link between regular consumption of alcohol and lung problems in otherwise healthy individuals. The authors noted that regular drinking can harm the immune system, even in people without alcohol use disorder.
Heavy drinking can also harm other areas of the body. The overall impact may slow down recovery from damage to the lungs.
How does heavy drinking influence COPD?
Drinking alcohol heavily on a regular basis may indirectly lead to COPD.
Anything that irritates and damages lung tissue may increase a person’s risk of developing COPD. If possible, it is essential to limit exposure to irritants.
Regular heavy drinking seems to increase the risk of damage to the lung’s tissues. It may indirectly lead to COPD or make existing symptoms worse.
Alcohol can irritate the lungs and increase the risk of COPD by:
- inhibiting cells in the lung that are responsible for killing bacteria
- preventing the immune system from protecting the body from infections, including pneumonia
- preventing the lungs from using mucus to trap toxins and carry them out of the body
- increasing the buildup of carbon dioxide by reducing the breathing rate, which is also characteristic of COPD
Can you drink alcohol if you have COPD?
Drinking alcohol is a personal choice. A person with a health issue, such as COPD, or a person with a risk of disease may wish to take into account the complications that alcohol can cause.
A doctor who knows an individual’s history can be a valuable resource when making this decision.
People with COPD also have to consider how medications may interact with alcohol. A doctor or pharmacist can answer any related questions.
Safely drinking alcohol with COPD
A safe amount of alcohol depends on factors like overall health, the regularity of drinking, and the progression of COPD.
The amount will be different for each person, and a person should discuss any concerns with a doctor, who can give advice and make recommendations based on a person’s condition.
Most research shows that regular, heavy consumption of alcohol over a long period can severely harm the body’s organs, including the lungs.
A person may benefit from drinking in smoke-free environments. Clubs and bars often expose people to secondhand smoke, even momentarily as they walk in or out of the building, and this can be harmful. Also, if a person has quit smoking, drinking may increase the urge to start again.
For anyone with these concerns, it may be best to drink at home, with friends who do not smoke.
Other risk factors for COPD
The American Lung Association says that 85–90 percent of COPD cases result from smoking.
Smoking is the most significant risk factor for COPD.
People who encounter high levels of environmental pollution are also at risk for lung damage that can cause the disease. This group includes people who regularly inhale chemicals, or wood or dust particles at work.
Another risk factor is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or AAT deficiency. This rare genetic disorder reduces the body’s ability to protect the lungs, which makes a person more prone to develop COPD.
For a person with COPD, it is important to weigh these risk factors when deciding whether to drink alcohol.
Researchers have yet to establish a direct link between COPD and alcohol. There are, however, some indirect links.
Regular, heavy drinking can damage the immune system and the lungs. A person who drinks in this way may be more likely to smoke, or they may encounter more secondhand smoke.
If a person has COPD or risk factors for the disease, they should consider staying away from alcohol. It may be especially beneficial to avoid heavy drinking. Occasional light drinking, such as having a glass of wine with a meal, may not be as harmful.
People who smoke heavily when they drink should also consider refraining from drinking.
Anyone who is having trouble avoiding alcohol or tobacco should speak with a doctor, who can recommend treatment plans, therapy, and medications that can help.