Does Alcohol Affect Your Lungs?

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Chronic alcohol use is a well-known cause of various health problems and diseases, such as liver cirrhosis. However, it can also significantly increase the risk of several pulmonary conditions, including lung disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Unaddressed alcohol dependence can cause lung damage to worsen over time, and complications can be life-threatening.

The most effective way to prevent or lessen lung damage associated with alcoholism is to seek professional help so you can break free from active addiction. At Guardian Recovery, we understand that alcoholism can adversely affect nearly every organ in the brain and body and, therefore, requires specialized care. Depending on the individual, physical and mental health conditions may also need to be addressed in combination with addiction. Our integrated programs are designed to holistically approach all aspects of each person’s overall wellness with consideration of their unique circumstances.

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Alcohol’s Effects on the Lungs

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant because it promotes the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows down CNS function by blocking the transmission of nerve signals. Under normal circumstances, GABA is balanced by glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. Yet, when too much GABA is present, certain vital functions, such as breathing and heart rate, can become dangerously slow.

Lung-Related Diseases Caused or Worsened by Alcohol

Lung disease is probably not the first health issue that comes to mind when people think of alcohol’s impact on the body. Nonetheless, chronic and heavy drinking can have adverse effects on nearly every organ, many of which are lung-related. These include a wide variety of conditions, some of which are potentially life-threatening, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, sepsis, and more.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is lung inflammation usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection, in which air sacs fill with pus or phlegm, leading to cough, difficulty breathing, chills, and fever. Pneumonia can be life-threatening, especially when left untreated.

Individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD) are at higher risk of developing both bacterial and viral pneumonia. Moreover, those who misuse alcohol are more susceptible to respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. (1) RSV is typically seen in infants, young children, and adults with compromised immune systems.

Ways Alcohol Use Disorder Contributes to Pneumonia Include: (2)

  • Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to malnutrition, leading to reduced protection against bacteria and viruses in the respiratory tract.
  • Alcohol harms the immune system, making it harder for the body to prevent or fight off infection.
  • Alcohol suppresses the gag reflex, which can lead to the aspiration of vomit into the lungs, causing infection.
  • Alcohol suppresses cough, which could otherwise help to expel bacteria- and virus-laden fluid from the lungs.

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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) occurs when fluids leak from small blood vessels and fill the air sacs of the lungs, impairing breathing. ARDS is usually secondary to another condition or injury, such as smoke inhalation, pneumonia, COVID-19, or sepsis.

Although ARDS occurs primarily in hospital patients, it is a medical emergency that requires prompt intervention. Because ARDS hinders the lungs from drawing oxygen from the air, it can cause hypoxia, brain damage, coma, and death. Unfortunately, chronic alcohol misuse is associated with a significantly heightened risk of developing ARDS in a hospital setting.

ARDS develops in response to severe inflammation and other lung damage that can be induced by heavy alcohol use. In fact, research findings indicate that ARDS is more likely to occur in individuals who use alcohol than in those who do not. (3)

Aspiration Asphyxia

When a person rapidly consumes large quantities of alcohol, they are at risk for developing alcohol poisoning. (4) Alcohol is a toxin, and if there is too much for the liver to break down, the body will seek to expel it through vomiting. However, because alcohol is a CNS depressant, it can cause unconsciousness and suppresses the gag reflex, which prevents choking.

When all these factors coincide, alcohol can cause an unconscious person to aspirate (breathe in) and asphyxiate (choke) on their vomit. Aspiration asphyxia is most often seen in settings where binge drinking is commonplace, such as college campuses.

Asthma

Although there is considerable debate about alcohol’s potential effects on asthma, research has shown that asthma symptoms worsen in some people with the condition. According to one study, “prolonged and heavy exposure to alcohol…may complicate asthma management.” (5) Also, in another study, alcoholic drinks were “perceived by a large number of asthmatic subjects to trigger their asthma.” (6)

Tuberculosis

Chronic alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of contracting tuberculosis (TB) or worsening existing disease. According to a meta-analysis, “alcohol use, alcohol dosage and alcohol-related problems were all associated with an increased risk of tuberculosis…” (7)

All studies analyzed found that heavy alcohol use increased the risk of contracting TB by 35%. A BMC Public Health study reported that subjects who drank more than one standard drink (40 grams of alcohol) per day substantially increased their risk of contracting tuberculosis. (8) Studies in the United States and several other countries examining the concurrence of TB among people with AUD found overlap rates ranging from 10-50%.

Sepsis

Sepsis is a potentially severe condition that can be life-threatening if left untreated. It’s caused by the body’s response to infection when it attacks its own tissues. Specifically, an infection of the lung can result in breathing difficulties, and an individual suffering from this may require temporary assistance to breathe correctly. Indeed, the lung is the most frequently identified organ to fail in sepsis and is also the most frequent primary site of infection. (9) As a result, the development of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is commonly seen in these cases.

Extensive research also confirms that individuals with AUD are more likely to contract pulmonary infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. (10) Mechanisms by which infections in those with AUD can result in sepsis include an increased risk of aspiration and malnutrition. More importantly, alcohol use can significantly impair immunity.

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When you consider all the health risks involved with chronic, heavy drinking, lung problems are not the only health issues that can produce severe effects. Physical ailments caused by or related to alcohol misuse include liver damage, heart disease, high blood pressure, and pancreatitis. Furthermore, alcohol misuse increases the risk of cancer, including those of the larynx, esophagus, stomach, and colon.

Whether or not you are suffering from serious health issues related to heavy drinking, you are urged to seek professional treatment if you are unable to control your alcohol use. To speak to an experienced Treatment Advisor, reach out to us for a free, no-obligation assessment and health benefits check. In addition, you can learn more about our streamlined admissions and many levels of care. So contact us today if you are ready to reclaim your life and health from addiction for good.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7100607/#:~:text=Human%20susceptibility%20to%20RSV%20infection,et%20al.%2C%202015 (2)https://www.ccjm.org/content/87/8/493 (3)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6045784/ (4)https://www.baylor.edu/counseling_center/doc.php/242575.pdf (5)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2081157/ (6)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0091674900250094 (7)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5540679/#:~:text=Alcohol%20consumption%20was%20associated%20with,the%20tuberculosis%20burden%20of%20disease (8)https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-8-289 (9)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16787297/ (10)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590617/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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