Does drinking alcohol increase your risk for COVID-19? Two doctors explain

Alcohol weakens your immune system and can put you at a greater risk for COVID-19. How much is too much?

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
5 min read

Health experts warn that drinking alcohol may put you more at risk for COVID-19.

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Not to be a buzzkill, but if you're drinking a lot these days, listen up. Alcohol, especially frequent and excessive drinking, can present some serious risks to your health, especially when it comes to COVID-19, your immune system and overall risk for developing serious complications from the virus.

While summer is usually a season of beach vacations, pool parties and rooftop hangs, this summer is not normal, to say the least. With COVID-19 numbers continuing to climb across the country, now is not the time to let your guard down when it comes to your health and immune system. 

While there's nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional drink, if you are doing more than that, health authorities like the WHO are warning people (PDF) about the potential risks drinking alcohol can have on your health, especially when it comes to the coronavirus. 

To gain clarity around exactly how alcohol can harm your immune system, how much it takes to have the effect, and what it has to do with COVID-19, I tapped two medical experts: Dr. Edo Paz, medical director at K Health; and Dr. Tom Moorcroft, founder of Origins of Health.

Alcohol weakens the immune system

Although there are no specific studies on how alcohol can impact your chances for COVID-19 specifically, there is plenty of research about alcohol's effect on your immune system, which is key to keeping you healthy and protecting you from illness. "We do know that alcohol can impact multiple organ systems in the body, including the immune system," Paz says. "A weakened immune system can make you more susceptible to contracting any contagious illness, including COVID-19."

According to the WHO, alcohol consumption weakens your immune system defenses in any amount, but that's especially true if you are a heavy drinker. According to Moorcroft, this happens in a few key ways. 

First, if you have alcohol in your system at the time you come into contact with a virus, he says your body's chances of fighting that off are much lower. "Alcohol in the body at the time of exposure to a pathogen, such as SARS-CoV-2, can impair the body's immediate immune response, making it easier for the pathogen to take hold and lead to an infection," Moorcroft explains.

Alcohol can also alter your gut bacteria or your gut microbiome, which affects your immune system. "Short and long term use of alcohol can impair immune function because it leads to changes in the microbiome -- the microorganisms in the intestines that aid in normal gut function," Moorcroft says. "Changes in the microbiome as a result of alcohol use can also lead to damage of cells of the gut wall that can lead to leakage of microbes in the bloodstream, triggering inflammation."

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Drinking alcohol increases your risk for acute respiratory distress syndrome

Acute respiratory distress syndrome is one of the potentially severe complications that can occur with COVID-19. ARDS is a condition where fluid fills the lungs and prevents the body from obtaining enough oxygen. ARDS can result in death, and those that do survive it can end up with severe damage to the lungs. The WHO warns (PDF) that heavy drinking and alcohol use can increase your risk for this on its own, and Moorcroft agrees. 

"Long-term use of alcohol has been associated with increased risk for severe liver disease and certain cancers as well as increased risk of developing ARDS -- which is a potential concern in COVID-19. This may be because long-term, excessive alcohol impairs proper function of immune cells in the lungs and can directly damage the cells that line the lung surface, making them less able to ward off infections," Moorcroft says. 


Drinking alcohol can mess with your sleep, which is important for a healthy immune system.

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Alcohol can interfere with sleep

Sleep is crucial for your overall health, and it's especially important for your immune system. You should aim for at least seven to eight hours of quality sleep to keep your immune system in fighting shape. According to the National Sleep Foundation, skimping on sleep can lower the proteins in your body that fight inflammation and infection, making you more susceptible to illness.

When it comes to alcohol and sleep, alcohol can affect two important things you need for quality rest: melatonin and gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA. 

"Alcohol artificially increases GABA levels, a neurotransmitter that slowly rises throughout the day and is at its peak when it's time to sleep," Moorcroft says. "This is why many people get sleepy after a few drinks, then head to bed, only to find they struggle to get a good night's sleep. As the alcohol wears off, the artificial bump in GABA goes away. The problem is, it prevented your natural levels from reaching appropriate levels to help provide you with a restful night of sleep." 

Melatonin is known as the "sleep hormone," which is why some people turn to melatonin supplements when they're having trouble getting enough sleep. According to Moorcraft, alcohol can also reduce the amount of melatonin your body produces, making it harder to fall asleep and thus reducing how many hours of sleep you get.

Melatonin may have benefits beyond sleep, since it's currently being evaluated for treating COVID-19 patients. Research published in Life Sciences says melatonin treatments have shown to help some critical care COVID-19 patients. "Melatonin not only helps us sleep properly, it also helps block an inflammatory pathway triggered by SARS-CoV-2," Moorcroft explains. "Melatonin functions as an anti-inflammatory and alcohol can interfere with normal melatonin production, leading to inflammation."


It's best to limit drinks to one to two per day to help keep your immune system strong.

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How much alcohol is OK?

The bottom line is that drinking any amount of alcohol affects your body. And the more you drink, the more you can weaken your immune system. 

"Consuming more than one to two drinks per day can increase your risks of multiple medical problems, including cardiac diseases, cancers, impaired immune functioning and mental health problems," Paz says. "To keep your immune system functioning at its best, you should avoid any alcohol. If you do drink, consuming less alcohol is better."

This advice does not apply to anyone that suffers from immunosuppression or is considered immunocompromised. These people, as well as those that have any preexisting medical conditions, should avoid alcohol completely, according to Paz.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.