Does alcohol make us more susceptible to Covid-19?

Christine Humphreys
by Christine Humphreys
Published: April 06, 2021 Last updated: December 24, 2023
Patient with a doctor
People who drink alcohol are more at risk of contracting Covid-19 and are at greater risk of developing complications and taking more time to recover from the virus, research suggests.
There has been increases in alcohol consumption among some groups using it to alleviate the stress resulting from the pandemic but it could increase your risk of contracting Covid-19.
It can have a negative impact on immunity and could increase vulnerability – not just to contracting the virus – but to the severity of the symptoms and the danger of long-term damage to the body.
The World Health Organisation advice for people is that during the Covid-19 pandemic might be a good time to cut down or stop drinking to improve overall health, including your immunity.

The impact of alcohol on the immune system

Alcohol consumption impacts on immune system health, raises the risk of infection and is more likely to lead to patients suffering severe illness from Coronavirus even in healthy people.
Those with an existing medical condition may show more severe symptoms and have more adverse health outcomes.
Infectious diseases are more likely to have a long-term impact on people with health conditions such as heart disease, pulmonary diseases or respiratory diseases. This is also the case where people suffer from asthma, diabetes and liver disease.
Common symptoms of Covid-19 virus include a cough and fever, and infected people can pass on the infection when droplets from the mouth or nose contaminate surfaces or pass directly to another person.
In some cases a person may show no symptoms and so may not know they are carrying the virus but can still infect others who may have a much more severe reaction to the virus. This can happen during contact in a short period of time when people don’t practice social distancing.
Experts say that’s why it’s important that we protect each other by wearing a mask in public, maintaining physical distancing and using alcohol wipes to reduce the risk of infecting others in public settings

Drinking impairs immune cells in key organs

Experts explain that when someone is exposed to a virus, the immune system goes into attack mode to kill the microorganisms that cause the disease.
The stronger the person’s immune system, the faster the body can clear a virus and recover from disease such as Covid-19 symptoms.
Alcohol directly affects the balance of the immune system and makes it harder for it to put up a defence making alcohol consumption a strong risk factor.
“Alcohol has diverse adverse effects throughout the body, including on all cells of the immune system, that lead to increased risk of serious infections,” said Dr. E. Jennifer Edelman , a Yale Medicine addiction medicine specialist.

Got a cough? It may be the booze…

While most people understand the health risks of excess drinking damaging vital organs, many may not be aware of the adverse impact of reg
ular drinking on the airways and lungs.
This is one reason why heavy drinkers often have a persistent cough and are more prone to chronic conditions of the respiratory system and are more prone to respiratory illness such a pneumonia.
Most people are aware of the link between tobacco and lung disease, but drinking regularly damages the lining of the airways and the lungs so it’s easier for the tiny virus particles to enter the body in the first place.
Experts say that once the virus enters the body, a person with a weakened immune system is much more likely to suffer more severe symptoms and develop complications.
Frequent drinking also damages gut health by destroying the microorganisms in the intestine that help maintain immunity. When healthy gut bacteria is damaged, this leads to inflammation.
If the body can’t fight the pathogen, an infection can worsen and lead to more severe, life-threatening, complications particularly among those already battling severe diseases and lead to worse outcomes.
Research has shown that heavy drinkers are more likely to develop lung disease such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and other pulmonary conditions. Health experts believe the same may be true with COVID-19.
Even as we sip a drink, our body prioritises breaking down the toxins that enter the digestive system through the liver, so the body is less effective at warding off infection. Even moderate alcohol intake may be a danger to sick people with an underlying condition.
Our sleep quality will also be impaired. People who don’t get enough good quality sleep are more prone to illness.
One study found that people who got less than 7 hours of sleep were nearly three times more likely to develop a cold compared with those who got 8 or more hours of sleep.
A lack of sleep can also affect how long it takes for a person to recover if they do get sick, according to the Mayo Clinic

How much alcohol is safe to drink?

It’s unclear how much alcohol is too much and when it starts to impair the immune system but it is known that binge drinking can have a massive effect on the immune system.
Leading physicians say that doses of around 14 drinks per week or more than five to six drinks at a time directly suppress the immune system.
Evidence also shows that even smaller amounts of alcohol can affect the immune system so people should limit themselves to no more than three drinks a day on no more than four days a week.
A brief but interesting experiment by the BBC showed how immediate the impact of alcohol can be on immune function. One reporter took a blood test prior to drinking alcohol and repeated the test after consuming around three glasses of Prosecco. A blood test the following morning showed that immune cells in the reporter’s blood had diminished.
The reporter stated that the drink had substantially reduced the number of lymphocytes – the specialist cells in the body that help fight infection. Most were down by 20 to 30% but some lymphocyte T cells that form an essential part of the immune system had dropped by as much as half.
Doctors monitoring the experiment confirmed that, at this diminished rate of immunity, a person coming into contact with an infected passenger on a bus or train would have much less protection in the blood to fight the infection.
The WHO has warned people against drinking too much alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic and warn that those who have any of the known risk factors for COVID-19, like heart disease or diabetes, should avoid drinking at all.

What is long Covid and what are the symptoms?

Millions of people have contracted the virus which for the majority of people has been relatively mild and required limited medical treatment
Some people who have contracted Covid-19 have developed a condition that’s become known as Long Covid needing emergency care creating a challenging time for essential health services.
This can last more than three months after the initial infection and can go on to affect the organs including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, nervous system, skin, or intestinal tract affecting bodily functions.
Health care workers have found Long Covid can be a medical emergency in people within a range of symptoms and some people have been left with chronic illness and potentially severe and debilitating consequences.
The most common symptoms are tiredness, shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness and lung pain, headache, hoarse voice, muscle pain, and palpitations.
Studies are now finding affects on the brain, heart, pancreas, skin, thyroid, gut, kidneys and the muscles and bones.
It appears that this can affect people of all ages but is twice as likely to develop in women than in men.
It’s believed that the immune system may be triggered by Covid-19 to go into over-drive, causing damaging inflammation to the internal organs..

Why is COVID-19 mild for some, deadly for others?

Only a minority of COVID-19 patients end up in hospital with life-threatening symptoms. Middle-aged and older people are much more likely to develop more serious symptoms and to die.
Studies in of Covid-19 cases in China show the immune systems in older people tend to be less efficient at clearing viral infections. Medical experts are still studying the reactive ‘storm’ caused by Covid-19 that harms the lungs and other organs and makes the middle-aged more vulnerable even if they are healthy and have no underlying medical conditions.
Children can get COVID-19 infections , but are largely spared severe illness and may be much less likely to develop an inflammatory storm when infected.
Men and women appear to get COVID-19 at roughly equal rates, but men are more likely to die of it. In Italy and Ireland, for example, males account for about 70% of COVID-19 deaths.
Men also are more likely to drink alcohol , which weakens the immune system and increases susceptibility to pneumonia . Men are much more likely to be tobacco users, which weakens immunity and overall lung function, primes the lungs and other vital organs for greater inflammation, and leads to greater susceptibility to respiratory infections and pneumonia.
Patients who develop serious or fatal COVID-19 are more likely to have at least one major underlying health condition, such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, asthma, kidney disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Diabetes and obesity are associated with a weaker resistance to infections and patients in this category are more likely to require mechanical ventilation.
Patients with these disorders often use immune-suppressing drugs, which reduce immunity to respiratory infections.
Some researchers have suggested that common treatments for high blood pressure and diabetes may worsen COVID-19 risk but doctors generally have not advised patients to stop taking them.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen used against arthritis are known to stress the kidneys. COVID-19 often attacks the kidneys. Some intensive care specialists have found unexpectedly severe cases of COVID-19 in people with histories of long-term NSAID use.
Having an unusually weakened immune system, for example due to cancer treatments, organ transplants, or other conditions requiring patients to take immune-suppressing drugs, is another factor that may greatly increase the susceptibility to serious COVID-19 infection.
It may also make people more contagious during infection. Doctors have been advising those with suppressed immune systems to be extra careful to avoid potential exposure to the virus, for example by staying home, and washing hands frequently.
Some people who seem perfectly healthy and are not considered immune-deficient may nevertheless have inherited immune system features that leave them more vulnerable than average to certain viral infections.
Christine Humphreys

About The Author

Christine Humphreys
Chris Humphreys is the co-founder of The Alcohol-Free Shop and She was a journalist for more years than she cares to remember. Ex-wife of an alcoholic, enthusiastic amateur musician and a passionate dog lover.