Chronic alcohol use and heavy drinking can greatly increase the risk of several pulmonary conditions, including lung disease, alcoholic pneumonia, acute lung injury, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Untreated alcohol use and addiction can cause lung damage to worsen over time. In severe cases, alcohol-related lung disease can be deadly. The most effective way to prevent or mitigate lung damage is to seek professional alcohol use treatment.
How Does Alcohol Affect The Lungs?
Much attention regarding the effects of alcohol use within the body is often focused on the liver, due to the devastating effects of alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis.
However, in recent years, more research has also been conducted on the effects of alcohol on the lungs; specifically, how heavy drinking can increase the risk for mild to severe lung-related issues.
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Alcohol-related lung damage is most common among those who are heavy drinkers or have been abusing alcohol for an extended amount of time. One way heavy drinking does this is by altering the airways over time, which can disrupt the inhalation process, decrease saliva production, and increase the risk for bacteria in the mouth. This can contribute to lung disease and infection.
Alcohol use can also decrease the body’s ability to fight off infection and increase the risk of bacteria spreading into the trachea (windpipe) and lungs. The intoxicating effects of alcohol can cause lung inflammation and impair a person’s gag and cough reflexes, increasing the risk for pneumonia.
Alcoholic lung disease and other lung issues can happen to any chronic heavy drinker, regardless of age or previous health status. This includes young people that are otherwise healthy.
If you struggle with alcohol use, or know someone that does, it can be important to recognize the warning signs of the ‘alcoholic lung.’ The most common lung conditions linked to alcohol use are detailed below.
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs caused by the spread of bacteria or viruses. It is currently the leading cause of death from infection in the United States. One of several risk factors for pneumonia – and its severe forms in particular – is heavy alcohol use.
There are several mechanisms behind this increased risk. First, alcohol can weaken or disrupt functions that control the processing of bacteria in the body. Alcohol can also weaken immune function in the lower airways, impair the body’s ability to remove mucus from the lungs, and increase the risk for aspiration.
There are many types of pneumonia, some of which are less serious than others. According to research, pneumonia is more likely to be serious and even deadly in people who use alcohol. This is true even compared to people without a drinking problem that are hospitalized for their pneumonia.
Signs of alcoholic pneumonia may include:
- excessive coughing
- fever or chills
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- low body temperature
- excessive amounts of mucus or phlegm while coughing
- nausea and vomiting
Acute Lung Injury
Alcohol has long been known to be a risk factor for pneumonia, but even more recent is the discovery of how chronic alcohol use can increase the risk for acute conditions. This includes worsening acute lung injury following a serious accident or trauma, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Chronic alcohol use can deplete the antioxidant glutathione, which plays a role in processing toxins and inflammation. Having low levels of glutathione in the body as a result of alcohol use can make the lungs more susceptible to injury after being exposed to bacteria. It can also affect liver function as a substance that is primarily produced in the liver.
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a severe type of lung injury that in many cases can be deadly. The most common causes include a buildup of fluid in the lungs, severe pneumonia, or another major injury.
ARDS develops as a response to severe inflammation and other lung-related damage that can be caused by excessive alcohol. According to researchers, ARDS is three to four times more likely in people that use alcohol than those who don’t.
The mortality rate for ARDS is estimated to be between 30 to 50 percent. However, in alcoholics this rate can sometimes be even higher. In general, heavy alcohol use is now believed to be the be the cause of tens of thousands of lung conditions each year.
Additional lung conditions linked to alcohol use include:
- worsened asthma symptoms
- lung infections
How Do You Treat Alcohol-Related Lung Damage?
Lung issues are often the result of heavy or chronic alcohol use and cannot be reversed with a quick fix. Although there are several treatment strategies being researched for alcoholic lung damage, the most effective way to prevent further lung damage is to stop drinking.
People that are addicted to alcohol often require medical support to quit drinking. Alcohol dependence, which can be even more severe in chronic alcoholics, can cause serious withdrawal symptoms that are challenging to manage in a home environment.
The top recommendation for treating alcohol use and its medical complications is to enter an inpatient rehab program. Inpatient treatment centers for alcohol commonly offer both medical detox services and rehabilitation programs for overcoming all aspects of a person’s addiction. Within a treatment setting, patients will have access to a medical doctor who can oversee their alcohol-related health problems and propose effective treatment options.
If you or a loved one is struggling with lung problems and alcohol addiction, don’t wait to seek help. Contact us today to find treatment options that meet you or your loved one’s needs.