The Confusing Connection Between Drinking and COPD

The Confusing Connection Between Drinking and COPD


Smoking is one of the main causes of chronic obstructive respiratory disease (COPD), but what does drinking have to do with it? 


COPD is in reference to a group of lung diseases that affects your lungs in certain ways all of which impact your body’s ability to breathe. This includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.




Airways blockage is the most invasive part of COPD and related respiratory disease. Whether your airways are blocked from excess mucus production or inflammation, this will result in reduced lung function and capacity. It can also damage and inflame your lungs beyond repair. In fact, there is no cure for COPD


Studies show that COPD is very common in people who smoke, in fact smoking is the leading cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That being said, drinking is a factor that complicates the condition.


People who frequently smoke also typically drink. Therefore, understanding the relationship between drinking, smoking, and COPD is slightly confusing.


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COPD Smoking and Drinking 

So there is a link between people who are dependent on alcohol and tobacco users, but there is less research that suggests there is a connection between alcohol consumption and COPD. 


In the following sections we will look at how smoking and drink can cause and complicate COPD. \


So it is established that there is a relationship between drinking alcohol and smoking. In fact, people with alcohol dependence are three times more likely to be smokers than the average population.


Smoking is a lung irritant, one of the worst and most invasive lung irritants there is. COPD is caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants. Therefore, it makes sense that smoking is the leading cause of COPD.




Other lung irritants like pipes, cigars, and even wildfire smoke and air pollution can also cause COPD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculated that 15 million Americans are currently diagnosed with COPD and of those 15 million, almost 40% of those people still smoke. 


Research Explaining COPD and Drinking 


Drinking Alcohol Can Damage Lungs

Heavy alcohol use can cause damage to the lungs in a few different ways


So, there is research that is suggesting heavily drinking alcohol reduces glucose levels. Glucose is important because it helps protect your lungs from damage against smoke. Therefore, the combination of drinking and smoking is very volatile, and harsh on your lungs, nad bodily functions.  


In addition to reducing glucose levels, drinking excess alcohol prevents your lungs from maintaining healthy airways. Drinking prohibits your system from effectively clearing mucus and contaminates from your airways. 


Immune system 


Drinking alcohol can interfere with your immune system. Your immune system is a crucial system that keeps your lungs healthy and able to fight off infections. Infections and COPD are a huge issue that could increase your chance of being hospitalized or experience exacerbated symptoms and irreversible lung damage. Alcohol’s damage to the immune system is so well known that it is a syndrome called alcoholic lung.


Cell damage 




Drinking alcohol can also hurt the surface cells that line the insides of the lungs. Every cell in our body is important for function and protection. Damaging our cells that have functional purposes is going to affect you in a negative way.


The surface cells are there to protect your lungs from inhaling damaging materials you breathe in everyday. Parts of your lungs are lined with hair-like cells called cilia who get rid of things inhaled out of the lungs. The bottom line is that heavy alcohol use harms this whole process.




Alcohol Vapor




Heavy drinking also causes inflammation. Alcohol is actually an irritating chemical, not just a liquid. Because of this, the vapor in alcohol harms your cells in the upper and lower parts of your airway, leaving them inflamed and irritated. 


When people drink alcohol some of it is absorbed in the bloodstream while some of it diffuses out into the lungs into your breath. Hence why you can smell alcohol on the breath!


This is also how breathalyzer tests work. After consuming alcohol, part of it is breathed out in the form of vapor. The vapor form is very harmful, and will cause damage to your airways. This damage is not secluded to your lungs, but it impacts the nasal passages and sinuses too. Inflammation is another issue with breathing alcohol vapor and will make you more susceptible to infections.




Woman drinking a glass of water.

Continuing on, alcohol can also harm your lungs by inflicting some of the body’s reflexes. Getting drunk will hurt your gag reflex. The gag reflex’s function is to stop people from inhaling food, drinks, or spit into the lungs. Without the gag reflex, or if you are constantly hurting your gag reflex, it is likely you will inhale food, water, or other irritants into your lungs. 


Bacterial Infections 




Alcohol is known to kill some of the good bacteria that can normally be found in your mouth and throat. Without this bacteria, you will have an increased risk of experiencing a bacterial infection. In addition to that, killing the normal and good bacteria in your mouth and throat allows for bad bacteria to grow there instead causing potential dangerous infections. 

Commonality of Drinking with COPD 




Drinking is very common among people with COPD and chronic health conditions in general. In fact one third of people reportedly drink regularly and just under 10 percent report drinking heavily. 


Even though, studies have shown that being diagnosed with medical conditions and chronic illnesses often sway people from drinking, people with COPD more often do not quit drinking. People with COPD and other respiratory diseases are as likely to quit drinking despite their diagnosis. The reasoning behind this is unclear.


However it does bring up a good point. That people with COPD and similar chronic illness were heavy drinkers before being diagnosed, suggesting drinking could have a connection to the cause of their COPD. 


Other Risks Associated with COPD 




Of course, there are other causes and it is likely that COPD develops for several lifestyle reasons and habits. Some of the other causes of COPD besides smoking include, living in populated areas, breathing in harsh environmental irritants and it can even be genetic in some rarer cases. 


That being said, about 90 percent of COPD patients can conclude their COPD is caused by smoking. 




The smaller population of COPD patient who have never smoke can contribute their disease to:


  • Exposure to secondhand smoke 
  • Exposure to pollution and other environmental toxins like wildfire smoke   
  • Breathing in burning chemicals or fuel 
  • Disorders including alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency



While there is no direct relationship indicating that drinking alcohol is the cause of COPD, there is evidence that drink does impact the respiratory system in certain negative ways. 


We hope this blog sheds light on what drinking can do to the lungs, and how alcohol can impact a person with respiratory disease.  

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