The Health Effects of Pandemic Drinking

If you’ve been drinking more than usual lately, here’s how it can affect your body.

Cooped up at home with no workplace to go to and no school for the kids, many people turned to jigsaw puzzles to combat boredom during the pandemic. Unfortunately, they also turned to alcohol (along with marijuana, cigarettes and illegal drugs) to combat the stress of isolation and loneliness, job loss, financial concerns and fear of getting COVID-19.

Cleaning supplies and toilet paper weren’t the only things people stocked up on during the pandemic. Sales at liquor stores – deemed “essential businesses” along with grocery stores and pharmacies – skyrocketed more than 50% in just the first month of lockdown alone.

Alcohol consumption was already rising among adults before the pandemic. An estimated 15 million Americans have a mild, moderate or severe alcohol-use disorder. Alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., after lack of exercise and poor diet. Nearly 100,000 people die each year from causes directly or indirectly linked to alcohol, such as car accidents.

Experts predict that the pandemic will result in these numbers climbing even higher, especially for women. One recent survey reported that nearly 2 out of 3 women increased their alcohol use during the past 18 months.

But alcohol isn’t good for the body. Even moderate consumption can lead to these serious issues:

  • Alcohol activates the immune system. This results in inflammation, which disrupts the body’s response to bacterial and viral infections.
  • Alcohol use can cause or exacerbate conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease and digestive issues.
  • Cases of alcoholic liver disease, including cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis, were up 30% between March 2020 and March 2021.
  • Too much alcohol can damage the cells that line the surface of the lungs. This leads to an increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like COVID-19.
  • Alcohol use can cause learning and memory problems, including dementia.
  • Alcohol increases risk-taking behaviors, such as unsafe sex, driving while intoxicated and suicidal thoughts.
  • Alcohol use, especially when paired with being isolated in close quarters during a collective social trauma, can lead to violence in the home. Numerous studies around the world have shown increases in the number and severity of domestic violence incidents since the pandemic began.
  • Restrictions during the pandemic compromised access to treatment services for those with substance abuse disorders, who often turn to in-person support groups to help maintain their sobriety. An estimated 40 to 60% of people in recovery are already at risk of relapse, and the stress of a pandemic coupled with few treatment options can make those numbers climb even higher.

If you find you’ve been drinking too much during the pandemic, it’s not too late to start reversing the effects. Studies have shown that after just two weeks of abstinence, the liver starts to repair itself, you’re sleeping better (which leads to increased energy during the day), your skin is more hydrated, your acid reflux has subsided, and you’re saving both calories and money.

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Date Last Reviewed: June 17, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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