There's a limit to healthy drinking—and it's much less than you might think.

By Leah Groth
April 21, 2020
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Social distancing is fully underway in the US—cancelled events, closed restaurants and bars, work-from-home regulations—but that hasn't stopped Americans from imbibing (maybe even a bit more than usual). Recent data from various sources has shown that alcohol sales are booming during the COVID-19 pandemic: One survey from Alcohol.org found that over 1 in 3 Americans said they're more likely to drink more in isolation, and market research from Nielsen found that sales of alcohol in the US rose 55% in the week ending March 21, the first week many began social distancing.

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For many, the uptick in booze sales may be a result of simply spending more time at home—but the World Health Organization still had to remind people that drinking alcohol doesn't have any protective benefits against COVID-19, and that drinking alcohol products other than ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is incredibly dangerous. “The most important point to remember: In no way will consumption of alcohol protect you from COVID-19 or prevent you from being infected by it,” the WHO’s regional office for Europe said in a pamphlet published on its site this week.

The agency shared that "alcohol has effects, both short-term and long-term, on almost every single organ of your body," and that evidence suggests there is "no safe limit" to the ingestion of alcohol, adding that "alcohol use, especially heavy use, weakens the immune system and thus reduces the ability to cope with infectious diseases.” The WHO also explained that heavy use of alcohol also increases the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), one of the more severe complications of COVID-19. The WHO also point out that “its consumption is likely to increase the health risks if a person becomes infected with the virus.”

As far as excessive drinking goes—defined by the CDC as heavy drinking (eight drinks or more per week for women, 15 for men) and binge drinking (four drinks in one sitting for women, five for men)—experts agree that it can weaken the immune system. "Alcohol doesn’t act as a cleaner inside the body, but it is a powerful drug that can alter many of the body’s normal health-promoting functions," Ellen F. Foxman, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine pathologist in the Clinical Virology Laboratory and an assistant professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, tells Health. "In fact, numerous studies have shown that drinking alcoholic beverages has negative health consequences and can suppress the immune system."

Some of that research—a 2015 research review article in the journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews—established that "clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and the adverse immune-related effects such as susceptibility of pneumonia." The researchers also noted that those immune-related effects have recently "been expanded to a greater likelihood of [ARDS] in addition to potentially complicating a variety of other health issues." Overall, they said that "alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways," including impairing the body's ability to fight off infections.

Another 2015 study published in the journal Alcohol also found that binge alcohol intoxication (aka, binge drinking) can can reduce the number of monocytes or white blood cells that fight off viruses, bacteria, and other infections in your body for up to five hours after intoxication—ultimately weakening the immune system.

What about moderate drinking? Does that have an effect on the immune system?

It's important to remember here that moderate drinking—according to the CDC, at least—is defined as one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men. That amount is deemed safe. Anything over that moderate threshold, however, is considered excessive, Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergy and infectious disease doctor with Allergy & Asthma Network and NYU Langone Health, tells Health. She adds that it's best to limit alcohol consumption "as much as possible."

But even moderate drinking isn't safe for some people. According to the US Dietary Guidelines, many individuals still shouldn't drink alcohol at all, including those who are take certain over-the-counter or prescription medications or who have certain medical conditions, those who are recovering from alcoholism or are unable to control the amount they drink, and anyone younger than age 21 years. The guidelines also say that there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption for pregnant women, and those who are breastfeeding should consult with their doctor. Dr. Parikh adds that alcohol can worsen any chronic disorders, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and asthma—all risk factors for severe illness associated with COVID-19. 

Overall, it seems the occasional glass of wine or cocktail won't affect your immune system—but anything past that (especially anything that veers into heavy or binge drinking) could be dangerous and should be avoided—especially right now.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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