Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory lung condition that worsens as it progresses. It refers to a group of respiratory illnesses that cause breathing problems and airflow blockages, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or asthma.
Studies show that those with COPD who drink alcohol can increase the frequency and severity of COPD symptoms. Learning how alcohol affects those with COPD helps you make informed lifestyle changes for your health.
Does drinking alcohol worsen COPD symptoms?
Alcohol consumption of any kind — even the smallest amount — can have a negative health impact on someone with COPD. One study found that prolonged or heavy consumption of alcohol by those with COPD impairs self-clearing of the airways, complicates asthma management, and likely worsens lung function and mortality.
When you have COPD, alcohol consumption can:
- Lower glutathione: reduced amounts of this antioxidant, which is found in the lungs, may cause COPD flare-ups.
- Decrease lung function: generates additional mucus in the lungs that may be difficult to clear.
- Damage the respiratory system: may result in shortness of breath.
- Decrease oxygen levels: because alcohol is a respiratory depressant, it reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood and lungs, and this can lead to a dangerous buildup of carbon monoxide instead.
- Increase sensitivity to medication: risk of developing side effects from medications will likely rise.
What are some symptoms of COPD and how does alcohol aggravate them?
Alcohol aggravates COPD by:
- Causing the tiny air sacs in the lungs to enlarge and further weaken.
- Generating excess mucus or phlegm that may cause persistent coughing.
- Inducing a blocked airflow, which generally worsens over time.
Most patients don’t notice COPD symptoms until it has caused major lung damage. Some common COPD symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Fluid in the lungs or lining or airway of the throat
- Excessive mucus production
- Enlarged glands
- Redness of the skin where capillaries are clogged
- Blue tint to the skin around fingernails or lips
- Constant respiratory infections
Without COPD treatment from your doctor, the condition will continue to worsen and become more life-threatening. If you have COPD and drink alcohol regularly, you will likely aggravate your existing symptoms by increasing how often and how severely you experience them.
How is COPD diagnosed?
Diagnosis begins with a physical exam, medical history review, and a discussion of emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or asthma symptoms. In the early stages of COPD, a physical exam may show very little. But as the condition progresses, the lungs will begin to show signs of overinflating as the chest gets larger.
Your doctor may notice that your diaphragm moves less than that of a patient who doesn't have COPD. Your veins may stick out, especially when you’re exhaling. This indicates increased pressure in your chest.
Some tests used for a COPD diagnosis, include:
- Spirometry, which tests how well the lungs work
- Chest X-rays
- Bronchoscopy, which rules out tuberculosis
- Arterial blood gas test, which measures oxygen levels in the blood
- Lung function testing
Treatments for COPD patients affected by alcohol
While there's no cure for COPD, current treatments focus on managing symptoms. Some treatments for COPD symptoms include:
- Medications that can help you breathe easier with fewer flare-ups.
- Physical or occupational therapy that helps you manage your COPD symptoms.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation that helps improve breathing and decrease the frequency of COPD symptoms.
- Supplemental oxygen that allows patients with severe COPD to live comfortably with their symptoms.
Patients with severe COPD symptoms who don’t respond to treatment may need surgery to improve their breathing.
When to see a doctor
It’s important that you never quit alcohol cold-turkey without support, as doing so can cause serious health complications. It can also lead to withdrawal symptoms like sweating, restlessness, irritability, nausea, tremors, hallucinations, and convulsions.
Never downplay the potential harm that alcohol can cause when you have COPD. If you have this condition, talk to your doctor about the risks involved in consuming alcohol. They can explain all of the risks involved and help you properly manage your COPD symptoms so you can live a healthy life.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Alcohol: “Alcohol and airways function in health and disease.”
American Lung Association: “COPD Symptoms and Diagnosis.”
American Psychological Association: "Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.”
Cedars Sinai: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).”
John Hopkins Medicine: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.”
NHS.uk: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).”?
Pulmonary Education and Research Foundation: “What Happens When Your Drink Alcohol With COPD?”?