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Alcohol and Health

Can You Drink Alcohol if You Have COPD?

Published:
August 30, 2023
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18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
August 30, 2023
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18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read

Every day, you struggle to breathe. You cough and wheeze, and experience shortness of breath any time you try to get up to go do something. You’re exhausted — mentally and physically — from living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and just want to be able to relax. You think a glass of wine, a cold beer, or a margarita might do the trick — but will it? Or will it just make things worse? 

In this post, we’ll explore what COPD is, how alcohol impacts people living with the condition, and offer tips on how to manage it. Let’s dive in!

What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. It affects 16 million Americans and is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Symptoms of COPD typically include coughing, spitting up phlegm (mucus), difficulty breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and tiredness.

Sometimes, people with COPD experience exacerbations: symptoms flare up and require medical treatment for a few weeks. This might include staying in a hospital with oxygen, nebulizers, and intravenous medication. 

COPD usually results from exposure to cigarette smoke and other irritating gasses or air pollutants. According to the American Lung Association, 85-90% of COPD cases result from smoking or from secondhand smoke. 

COPD is a serious condition, affecting many aspects of life and putting people at a greater risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer, and a variety of other conditions.

Conditions That Contribute to COPD

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two common conditions that contribute to COPD. They usually occur together and can vary in severity. Let’s break these down:

  • Chronic bronchitis. This is swelling or inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. It’s characterized by a daily cough and excess mucus (phlegm) in the chest. It also causes tightening of the airways, which makes it difficult to breathe. 
  • Emphysema. In this condition, the alveoli become damaged beyond repair. Our body uses these air sacs to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. When the alveoli are damaged, the exchange of oxygen and dioxide is greatly disrupted. The result is low oxygen levels in the body, which causes breathlessness.

Can We Drink Alcohol if We Have COPD?

The answer to whether we can drink alcohol with COPD isn’t necessarily clear. While the occasional alcoholic beverage may be safe, heavy drinking can make COPD symptoms worse and impair the health of our lungs.

Studies report that moderate to high levels of alcohol consumption are associated with a 25% increased risk of death from COPD. Furthermore, one study found that COPD patients who were discharged from the hospital and who struggled with alcohol misuse were more likely to require readmission within 30 days. 

How Does Alcohol Affect the Lungs?

Chronic alcohol consumption can damage the surface of our lungs, making it more difficult to clear mucus from our lungs. A buildup of mucus can lead to shortness of breath and make it harder to breathe. We may have a harder time coughing after consuming alcohol, making it more difficult to clear our lungs — which is why we might feel like we have an “alcohol cough.” 

Similarly, alcohol often leads to inflammation throughout our body, which can impair our immune system. This makes us more susceptible to all types of infections, including those of our lungs. In fact, studies show that heavy alcohol consumption can increase our risk of respiratory infections.

Let’s take a closer look at how alcohol interacts with COPD:

Alcohol Lowers Glutathione Levels

Alcohol also interferes with the effectiveness of antimicrobial agents in our airways. For example, researchers have found that heavy drinking reduces levels of an antioxidant in the body known as glutathione, which protects the lungs from damage caused by inhaled toxins such as tobacco smoke, chemicals, and other airborne particles. Decreased levels of glutathione makes us more susceptible to breathing difficulties and can contribute to COPD flare ups. And if we’re already smokers and consume alcohol, our COPD flare ups will only be worse. 

Alcohol Acts as a Respiratory Depressant

Some people with COPD find that alcohol helps them be less irritated by the breathlessness associated with COPD. However, even though we might not feel as much discomfort, our oxygen levels are still decreasing, which can lead to an excess build up of carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is bad for anyone, but it’s especially harmful for COPD patients who struggle to expel excess carbon dioxide because of their damaged lungs. As a result, consuming alcohol might cause us to become even more sedated than a non-COPD person who consumed the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol Can Cause Sleep Disturbances

In addition to decreasing lung function, alcohol can also create breathing problems while we sleep. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and it can help us fall asleep faster. But, despite drifting off more quickly, alcohol actually reduces the overall quality of sleep and causes frequent disruptions. Research shows that heavy drinking can elevate the risk of sleep apnea — a common breathing disorder — by about 25%. This can be particularly dangerous for people with COPD who already have oxygen levels that are lower than normal. 

Alcohol Can Cause Allergic Reactions and Flare-Ups 

After drinking alcohol, some people with COPD demonstrate allergic or allergic-like reactions that exacerbate breathing difficulties and discomfort. This may include sneezing, running nose, congestion, itching or flushing of the skin. While any type of alcohol can cause these symptoms, wine appears to cause allergic reactions more than others.

Alcohol Can Interfere With Medications

Alcohol can also lessen the effectiveness of certain COPD medications, such as glucocorticoids and antibiotics. Glucocorticoids are used to manage chronic lung conditions, and antibiotics are used to treat bacterial lung infections. Even small amounts of alcohol can make them less effective. Furthermore, alcohol can increase the effects of anxiety and pain medications, which can cause our heart and breathing rates to slow to a dangerous — even life-threatening — level. 

Can Alcohol Cause Breathing Problems?

So alcohol may make COPD worse — but can it actually cause breathing problems? While researchers haven’t found clear evidence that drinking alcohol can directly cause COPD, alcohol can damage our lungs and our body’s immune response. This could make it harder to breathe and increase our risk of COPD. 

However, the biggest risk factor for developing COPD is smoking. People who encounter high levels of environmental pollution are also at risk for lung damage that could cause the disease. This might include people who regularly inhale chemicals, wood, or dust particles at work. 

Another risk factor is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or AAT deficiency. This is a rare genetic disorder that reduces the body’s ability to protect the lungs, which can make someone more prone to develop COPD. 

If we have any of these risk factors, adding alcohol to the mix is likely to increase our risk, given its negative effects on our lung and immune function. Particularly if we find ourselves coughing after drinking alcohol or experiencing shortness of breath after drinking alcohol, it’s best to avoid it. 

What Is the Treatment for COPD? 

While there is no cure for COPD, treatments often aim to slow or prevent its negative impact on our life by reducing symptoms and exacerbations, and improving activity and strength. 

However, the most important thing we can do for our lungs is to quit smoking. It’s never too late! We can’t necessarily undo the damage that’s already been done, but stopping smoking can slow the progression of COPD. It can also prevent other complications of smoking, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. 

Those of us who have trouble quitting can talk to a medical provider about possible medications, nicotine replacement therapy, counseling, and group programs, all of which have proven to be  effective methods in helping smokers quit. 

Many people with COPD can also benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a structured program of education, physical therapy, and social support that improves quality of life, physical activity, and symptoms. Contact a healthcare provider to get information about any pulmonary rehab programs near us.

Tips for Managing COPD 

Living with COPD is not easy. It limits our everyday activities, such as exercising, working, moving around, eating, and sleeping. It can also lead to social isolation, depression, and anxiety. In addition to quitting smoking, here are some tips for managing COPD:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Giving your body the nutrition it needs is key for fighting off any disease. Plus, the food we eat can actually affect our breathing. For instance, eating a diet with fewer carbohydrates and more healthy fat may help us breathe easier. When our body metabolizes carbohydrates, it produces more carbon dioxide for the same amount of oxygen used. When our body metabolizes fat, it produces the least amount of carbon dioxide. Try limiting or eliminating highly processed foods, and aim for high-protein, high-fiber foods, along with foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish and green leafy vegetables. 
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals. The American Lung Association recommends people with COPD eat four to six small meals a day. A full stomach can further restrict breathing by pushing up on the diaphragm and lungs. Smaller, more frequent meals allow the diaphragm to move freely, letting the lungs fill with air and empty out more easily. 

  • Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is important because it can help thin the mucus in your airways and make it easier to clear your lungs. Aim to drink six to eight 8-oz glasses of water per day, ideally spread throughout the day to avoid overfilling your stomach. Keep in mind that fruits and vegetables offer a substantial amount of water as well, especially cucumbers, celery, and watermelon. 
  • Practice breathing exercises. Try incorporating breathing techniques into your daily routine to help you move air in and out of your lungs, which can help decrease shortness of breath. Here are two exercises to try: 
  • Pursed-lip breathing. Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds. Pucker your lips. Blow air through your mouth for about 5 seconds. This exercise slows your breathing, keeps airways open, and helps boost oxygen
  • Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing. Put one hand over your heart and the other on your stomach. Inhale through your nose, making sure your stomach expands. Slowly breathe out through pursed lips, pressing on your belly.


The Bottom Line

COPD is a serious condition that impairs our breathing and impacts our quality of life. While an occasional drink may not be harmful, heavy drinking can exacerbate COPD symptoms and put us at a greater risk for respiratory infections. It can also disrupt our sleep and decrease the effectiveness of certain COPD medications. A medical professional can help us develop a personalized treatment plan, but we can also help ourselves by eating a healthy diet, eating smaller meals throughout the day, staying hydrated, and practicing breathing exercises.

If you want to start feeling strong, healthy, and better overall, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits. 

Every day, you struggle to breathe. You cough and wheeze, and experience shortness of breath any time you try to get up to go do something. You’re exhausted — mentally and physically — from living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and just want to be able to relax. You think a glass of wine, a cold beer, or a margarita might do the trick — but will it? Or will it just make things worse? 

In this post, we’ll explore what COPD is, how alcohol impacts people living with the condition, and offer tips on how to manage it. Let’s dive in!

What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. It affects 16 million Americans and is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Symptoms of COPD typically include coughing, spitting up phlegm (mucus), difficulty breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and tiredness.

Sometimes, people with COPD experience exacerbations: symptoms flare up and require medical treatment for a few weeks. This might include staying in a hospital with oxygen, nebulizers, and intravenous medication. 

COPD usually results from exposure to cigarette smoke and other irritating gasses or air pollutants. According to the American Lung Association, 85-90% of COPD cases result from smoking or from secondhand smoke. 

COPD is a serious condition, affecting many aspects of life and putting people at a greater risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer, and a variety of other conditions.

Conditions That Contribute to COPD

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two common conditions that contribute to COPD. They usually occur together and can vary in severity. Let’s break these down:

  • Chronic bronchitis. This is swelling or inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. It’s characterized by a daily cough and excess mucus (phlegm) in the chest. It also causes tightening of the airways, which makes it difficult to breathe. 
  • Emphysema. In this condition, the alveoli become damaged beyond repair. Our body uses these air sacs to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. When the alveoli are damaged, the exchange of oxygen and dioxide is greatly disrupted. The result is low oxygen levels in the body, which causes breathlessness.

Can We Drink Alcohol if We Have COPD?

The answer to whether we can drink alcohol with COPD isn’t necessarily clear. While the occasional alcoholic beverage may be safe, heavy drinking can make COPD symptoms worse and impair the health of our lungs.

Studies report that moderate to high levels of alcohol consumption are associated with a 25% increased risk of death from COPD. Furthermore, one study found that COPD patients who were discharged from the hospital and who struggled with alcohol misuse were more likely to require readmission within 30 days. 

How Does Alcohol Affect the Lungs?

Chronic alcohol consumption can damage the surface of our lungs, making it more difficult to clear mucus from our lungs. A buildup of mucus can lead to shortness of breath and make it harder to breathe. We may have a harder time coughing after consuming alcohol, making it more difficult to clear our lungs — which is why we might feel like we have an “alcohol cough.” 

Similarly, alcohol often leads to inflammation throughout our body, which can impair our immune system. This makes us more susceptible to all types of infections, including those of our lungs. In fact, studies show that heavy alcohol consumption can increase our risk of respiratory infections.

Let’s take a closer look at how alcohol interacts with COPD:

Alcohol Lowers Glutathione Levels

Alcohol also interferes with the effectiveness of antimicrobial agents in our airways. For example, researchers have found that heavy drinking reduces levels of an antioxidant in the body known as glutathione, which protects the lungs from damage caused by inhaled toxins such as tobacco smoke, chemicals, and other airborne particles. Decreased levels of glutathione makes us more susceptible to breathing difficulties and can contribute to COPD flare ups. And if we’re already smokers and consume alcohol, our COPD flare ups will only be worse. 

Alcohol Acts as a Respiratory Depressant

Some people with COPD find that alcohol helps them be less irritated by the breathlessness associated with COPD. However, even though we might not feel as much discomfort, our oxygen levels are still decreasing, which can lead to an excess build up of carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is bad for anyone, but it’s especially harmful for COPD patients who struggle to expel excess carbon dioxide because of their damaged lungs. As a result, consuming alcohol might cause us to become even more sedated than a non-COPD person who consumed the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol Can Cause Sleep Disturbances

In addition to decreasing lung function, alcohol can also create breathing problems while we sleep. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and it can help us fall asleep faster. But, despite drifting off more quickly, alcohol actually reduces the overall quality of sleep and causes frequent disruptions. Research shows that heavy drinking can elevate the risk of sleep apnea — a common breathing disorder — by about 25%. This can be particularly dangerous for people with COPD who already have oxygen levels that are lower than normal. 

Alcohol Can Cause Allergic Reactions and Flare-Ups 

After drinking alcohol, some people with COPD demonstrate allergic or allergic-like reactions that exacerbate breathing difficulties and discomfort. This may include sneezing, running nose, congestion, itching or flushing of the skin. While any type of alcohol can cause these symptoms, wine appears to cause allergic reactions more than others.

Alcohol Can Interfere With Medications

Alcohol can also lessen the effectiveness of certain COPD medications, such as glucocorticoids and antibiotics. Glucocorticoids are used to manage chronic lung conditions, and antibiotics are used to treat bacterial lung infections. Even small amounts of alcohol can make them less effective. Furthermore, alcohol can increase the effects of anxiety and pain medications, which can cause our heart and breathing rates to slow to a dangerous — even life-threatening — level. 

Can Alcohol Cause Breathing Problems?

So alcohol may make COPD worse — but can it actually cause breathing problems? While researchers haven’t found clear evidence that drinking alcohol can directly cause COPD, alcohol can damage our lungs and our body’s immune response. This could make it harder to breathe and increase our risk of COPD. 

However, the biggest risk factor for developing COPD is smoking. People who encounter high levels of environmental pollution are also at risk for lung damage that could cause the disease. This might include people who regularly inhale chemicals, wood, or dust particles at work. 

Another risk factor is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or AAT deficiency. This is a rare genetic disorder that reduces the body’s ability to protect the lungs, which can make someone more prone to develop COPD. 

If we have any of these risk factors, adding alcohol to the mix is likely to increase our risk, given its negative effects on our lung and immune function. Particularly if we find ourselves coughing after drinking alcohol or experiencing shortness of breath after drinking alcohol, it’s best to avoid it. 

What Is the Treatment for COPD? 

While there is no cure for COPD, treatments often aim to slow or prevent its negative impact on our life by reducing symptoms and exacerbations, and improving activity and strength. 

However, the most important thing we can do for our lungs is to quit smoking. It’s never too late! We can’t necessarily undo the damage that’s already been done, but stopping smoking can slow the progression of COPD. It can also prevent other complications of smoking, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. 

Those of us who have trouble quitting can talk to a medical provider about possible medications, nicotine replacement therapy, counseling, and group programs, all of which have proven to be  effective methods in helping smokers quit. 

Many people with COPD can also benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a structured program of education, physical therapy, and social support that improves quality of life, physical activity, and symptoms. Contact a healthcare provider to get information about any pulmonary rehab programs near us.

Tips for Managing COPD 

Living with COPD is not easy. It limits our everyday activities, such as exercising, working, moving around, eating, and sleeping. It can also lead to social isolation, depression, and anxiety. In addition to quitting smoking, here are some tips for managing COPD:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Giving your body the nutrition it needs is key for fighting off any disease. Plus, the food we eat can actually affect our breathing. For instance, eating a diet with fewer carbohydrates and more healthy fat may help us breathe easier. When our body metabolizes carbohydrates, it produces more carbon dioxide for the same amount of oxygen used. When our body metabolizes fat, it produces the least amount of carbon dioxide. Try limiting or eliminating highly processed foods, and aim for high-protein, high-fiber foods, along with foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish and green leafy vegetables. 
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals. The American Lung Association recommends people with COPD eat four to six small meals a day. A full stomach can further restrict breathing by pushing up on the diaphragm and lungs. Smaller, more frequent meals allow the diaphragm to move freely, letting the lungs fill with air and empty out more easily. 

  • Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is important because it can help thin the mucus in your airways and make it easier to clear your lungs. Aim to drink six to eight 8-oz glasses of water per day, ideally spread throughout the day to avoid overfilling your stomach. Keep in mind that fruits and vegetables offer a substantial amount of water as well, especially cucumbers, celery, and watermelon. 
  • Practice breathing exercises. Try incorporating breathing techniques into your daily routine to help you move air in and out of your lungs, which can help decrease shortness of breath. Here are two exercises to try: 
  • Pursed-lip breathing. Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds. Pucker your lips. Blow air through your mouth for about 5 seconds. This exercise slows your breathing, keeps airways open, and helps boost oxygen
  • Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing. Put one hand over your heart and the other on your stomach. Inhale through your nose, making sure your stomach expands. Slowly breathe out through pursed lips, pressing on your belly.


The Bottom Line

COPD is a serious condition that impairs our breathing and impacts our quality of life. While an occasional drink may not be harmful, heavy drinking can exacerbate COPD symptoms and put us at a greater risk for respiratory infections. It can also disrupt our sleep and decrease the effectiveness of certain COPD medications. A medical professional can help us develop a personalized treatment plan, but we can also help ourselves by eating a healthy diet, eating smaller meals throughout the day, staying hydrated, and practicing breathing exercises.

If you want to start feeling strong, healthy, and better overall, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits. 

Summary FAQs


1. What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two of the most common conditions that contribute to COPD.

2. Can we drink alcohol if we have COPD?

While the occasional drink may be safe, heavy drinking can make COPD symptoms worse and impair the health of our lungs. Alcohol can also increase our risk of respiratory infections, disrupt our sleep, and decrease the effectiveness of some COPD medications.

3. Can alcohol cause breathing problems?

While alcohol can’t directly cause COPD, chronic heavy consumption of alcohol can damage our lungs and our immune system, making it harder to breathe and increasing our risk of COPD.

4. What is the treatment for COPD?

The most important thing to do if we have COPD is to quit smoking. Many people with COPD can also benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a structured program of education, physical therapy, and social support.

5. What are some tips for managing COPD?

In addition to quitting smoking, we can manage COPD by eating a healthy diet; eating smaller, more frequent meals; staying hydrated; and practicing breathing exercises.

Start Feeling Strong and Healthy With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet hundreds of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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