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Alcohol and Health

Should You Drink Alcohol After Surgery?

August 8, 2023
11 min read
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Written by
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 8, 2023
11 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 8, 2023
11 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 8, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 8, 2023
11 min read

You just had a major surgery. You underwent general anesthesia and spent some time in recovery, where you were monitored by a doctor and nursing staff. You were officially discharged from the hospital, you’re back home, and overall you’re feeling pretty good. You might be thinking, “How soon after surgery can I drink alcohol?”

At the same time, you might also be wondering, “How long before surgery should I stop drinking alcohol?” Wherever you’re at regarding your procedure, these are important questions to ask. Let’s dive into the facts about drinking alcohol after surgery and also touch on the best practices regarding alcohol before surgery.

Major vs. Minor Surgeries

Surgeons in blue scrubs performing surgery in an operating room

Whether we can drink alcohol or not after surgery largely depends on the type of surgery we had. For instance, minor surgeries affect the body very differently than major surgeries. A dermatology procedure, for instance, is less invasive than something more severe, such as open heart surgery. 

A surgery is generally considered “minor” if it doesn’t require general anesthesia, the use of powerful drugs that send us to sleep so we don’t move or feel pain during the procedure. It’s also considered minor if we only have small surgical incisions and don’t need opioid pain medications. 

In general, it’s safe to drink alcohol the day following a minor surgery. However, it’s always important to ask our doctor or surgeon when it’s safe to drink after we’ve undergone any sort of medical procedure. 

On the other hand, drinking alcohol after anesthesia required by major surgeries (those involving larger surgical incisions and pain medication) can be dangerous. 

 Post-surgery alcohol risks: slower healing, increased bleeding, and medication interactions

Reasons Not To Drink Alcohol After Surgery

There are several reasons why it’s important to refrain from consuming alcohol after surgery: 

Increased Swelling

The goal when we’re recovering from surgery is to reduce swelling. Drinking alcohol widens our blood vessels, which can cause swelling. Any incision could become inflamed or start to swell, leading to pain on or around the wound. Increased swelling can ultimately affect our ability to heal and result in an extended recovery time. 

Harmful Interactions With Medications

After undergoing surgery, we’re typically prescribed certain medications, such as painkillers, sedatives, or antibiotics to help us recover. Mixing these types of drugs with alcohol may cause unpleasant side effects, including fainting, headaches, vomiting, nausea and drowsiness. It can also put us at risk of other problems, such as heart issues or breathing difficulties. Some medications are prescribed for extended periods of time, so even if we feel better after returning home, combining alcohol with these drugs can be dangerous. 

Increased Risk of Infection

One of the biggest concerns after undergoing surgery is getting an infection. This is where our immune system kicks in, helping to fight any harmful bacteria at the surgical site. Alcohol weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off a possible infection.

If we do get an infection and it’s not managed in time, it can lead to sepsis or send us into a life-threatening condition called septic shock, which is a widespread infection causing organ failure and dangerously low blood pressure. Furthermore, alcohol negatively affects our lungs and increases risk of pneumonia after surgery

Increased Bleeding

Alcohol can also cause us to bleed more than normal after surgery. This is because alcohol is a blood thinner, preventing blood cells from sticking together and forming clots. This can be dangerous, as it can lead to prolonged bleeding and prevent our surgical site from healing properly. If we’re already taking blood-thinning medications (which are commonly prescribed after surgery) or have a clotting disorder, this can be particularly problematic. 

Dehydration & Sleep

After any surgery, it’s important to stay well hydrated. Our body loses a lot of fluid while under the knife and has to work overtime to try to get back to a balanced state. Drinking alcohol is counteractive: it’s a diuretic, so it dehydrates us by promoting water loss through urine. Dehydration can affect many different bodily systems, including our skin. Without adequate hydration, the scarring at our surgical site might become more pronounced. We may also experience increased itchiness around our wound.

Furthermore, there’s a reason we’re told to “take it easy” after surgery: our body needs quality, restorative sleep to promote healing and recovery. Drinking alcohol can interfere with our ability to get good rest. While it might help us nod off faster, it prevents us from entering into the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep, which is vital for both mental and physical restoration. 

When Can I Drink Alcohol After Surgery? 

So now we might be asking ourselves, “How soon after surgery can I drink alcohol?” It largely depends on the type of surgery we had and how long we’re taking any prescribed medications. For more invasive surgeries, this could be weeks or even months. 

Given alcohol’s effect on swelling, bleeding, and infection, it’s probably best to wait until our body is fully healed and we’re no longer taking any drugs. However, it’s best to ask our doctor when it is safe to consume alcohol after our specific operation. Keep in mind that even if we’re feeling better, it’s important to wait till we get our doctor’s go-ahead.

Can You Drink Alcohol Before Surgery?

We’ve focused on alcohol after surgery, but what about the other side of the coin? Can you drink alcohol before surgery? If you find yourself wondering, “How long before surgery should I stop drinking alcohol?”, scientists agree that it’s best to be careful.

Once again, the timeline for when to stop alcohol before surgery depends on the type of procedure and the individual circumstances, but we’re better off sticking to the more conservative recommendation of avoiding booze for at least 48 hours. 

Why? There are several factors at play. For one thing, the liver (which metabolizes alcohol) is also involved in processing anesthetics and might get overtaxed as a result. Moreover, alcohol is dehydrating and can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, which might have an effect on the procedure. Finally, alcohol can affect the way our blood clots, which might increase the risk of bleeding during surgery.

The Bottom Line

Drinking alcohol after major surgeries that require general anesthesia or medications can be dangerous, leading to complications that can slow the healing process. Alcohol can increase swelling, bleeding, and our risk for infection, interfering with our body’s ability to recover properly. Mixing alcohol with prescribed pain medications or antibiotics can also be lethal. Before we start drinking again, it’s vital that our doctor gives us the ok. 

Even without undergoing surgery, alcohol can take a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional health. With Reframe, millions of people have learned how to cut back on their alcohol consumption and become healthier, and happier, in the process. 

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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