Going out and enjoying alcohol is one of life’s great pleasures. Unfortunately, it comes with some nasty consequences.
Most people are aware that alcohol causes cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. However, fewer people understand the link between alcohol consumption and lung health.
This post explores the link between alcohol consumption and breathing. We explain what causes shortness of breath after drinking alcohol, how to prevent it, and when to go to a doctor.
Can Drinking Alcohol Cause Shortness of Breath?
Yes, alcohol can cause shortness of breath, particularly in people with underlying medical conditions. Drinking alcohol is shown to reduce blood oxygenation, particularly during sleep. It can also interfere with normal lung function which, in turn, decreases the organ’s capacity to absorb oxygen over time.
What Causes Shortness of Breath After Drinking Alcohol?
Alcohol causes shortness of breath for several reasons. Mostly, these relate to preexisting conditions.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), for instance, are much more likely to develop the condition. Researchers believe that this occurs because alcohol consumption reduces antioxidant levels in the body, specifically glutathione. When this chemical is absent, pollution and smoke can damage lung tissue more easily.
Another theory states that regular heavy drinking makes COPD worse by disrupting the lung’s mucociliary transport system. The lungs can’t produce the mucus they need to remove unwanted particles, such as dust and smoke, making symptoms worse.
Those with a history of sleep apnea are also at higher risk. Alcohol appears to make obstructive sleep apnea more severe, worsening sleep quality and increasing the time spent not breathing.
Lastly, alcohol can also raise the risk of respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, which, in turn, can make breathing more labored. Studies find that alcohol inhibits the immune system, making lungs less resistant to infection.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Lungs?
Researchers have known for some time that people who drink alcohol excessively are at higher risk of lung problems. Evidence suggests that they are much more prone to tuberculosis, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and respiratory syncytial virus. Higher risk comes from alcohol’s suppressive effects on the immune system. White blood cells responsible for fighting foreign invaders in the lungs simply don’t work as well.
Unfortunately, excessive alcohol consumption can damage the lungs regardless of how good your health is. Even if you are young, you may notice that it gets harder to breathe as you continue drinking over time.
What Can You Do to Avoid Shortness of Breath After Drinking Alcohol?
The best way to avoid shortness of breath after drinking alcohol is to reduce or eliminate your consumption. Over time, you may notice that your breathing improves or returns to normal.
To quit alcohol, first learn how to do it effectively. Today, there is ample advice and guidance out there on how to cut down. It could be something as simple as drinking non-alcoholic wine or changing your socializing patterns.
Next, find a partner to go on the journey with you. Keep each other accountable and provide mutual support.
Lastly, treat yourself if you are successful. Take yourself out for a delicious meal or book a vacation.
If quitting isn’t an option, there are other methods you can try to reduce symptoms.
First, try eating smaller meals. This way, food in your stomach is less likely to put pressure on the diaphragm, making it easier to breathe.
Second, try exercise. While physical activity will make you feel out of breath initially, over time it will build your capacity to take in oxygen. When your body adapts, it will become more efficient and better able to cope with reduced supply.
Another strategy is to drink plenty of water, particularly on nights out involving heavy drinking. Drinking more water helps to keep your alcohol consumption in check.
You might also want to stop smoking and find ways to reduce your exposure to environmental pollutants. Spending time in a busy city surrounded by smokers will likely make your condition worse.
If you are on medications for lung or heart disease, continue taking them. They may help you improve your control over your breathing.
Finally, you might want to consider taking an alcohol flush. These pills reduce levels of acetaldehyde in your system, one of the main causes of breathing difficulties. Many people take these before, during, or after their drinking sessions to reduce hangovers and improve breathing.
When to See a Doctor?
Shortness of breath that comes on quickly is a serious medical condition. If you notice that your breathing becomes more labored (and that’s unusual for you), call emergency services immediately, particularly if it is affecting your ability to function.
Always call an ambulance if your symptoms are accompanied by:
- Bluish tinge to the lips or nails
- Diminished mental alertness
- Chest pain
The following symptoms are not an emergency, but you should still consult with a doctor about them. These include wheezing while breathing, shortness or worsening breath over time, chills or high fever, swollen feet and ankles, and finding it harder to breathe when lying down.
Get Help From an Online Doctor!
If you are experiencing chest pain after drinking alcohol, get in touch with our team. We can provide consultations and help you manage some of the less desirable effects of alcohol on your body. Our online doctors give you advice and can prescribe medications or lifestyle plans to improve symptoms.
- Some people who consume alcohol may experience shortness of breath
- Alcohol causes labored breathing because it reduces antioxidant activity in the lungs and prevents the mucociliary system from functioning correctly
- Infectious lung diseases are more common in heavy drinkers because of the effect of alcohol on the immune system
- The best way to stop shortness of breath after drinking alcohol is to avoid it in the first place
- Seek immediate medical attention if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, blue fingers, and lips, fainting, or nausea
- Bhanu Prakash Kolla, Moein Foroughi, Farzane Saeidifard, Subhajit Chakravorty, Zhen Wang, Meghna P. Mansukhani, The impact of alcohol on breathing parameters during sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Sleep Medicine Reviews, Volume 42, 2018, Pages 59-67, ISSN 1087-0792, available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2018.05.007
- Corey D. Kershaw, M.D., and David M. Guidot, M.D. Alcoholic Lung Disease. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Available from: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh311/66-75.htm
- Issa FG, Sullivan CEAlcohol, snoring and sleep apnea.Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 1982;45:353-359. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.45.4.353
- Erin E. Wetherbee , Dennis E. Niewoehner , Sarah Harnden , John E. Connett , Ken M. Kunisaki, Alcohol Intake And Acute Exacerbations Of COPD, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 2014;189:A2863. Available from: https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/ajrccm-conference.2014.189.1_MeetingAbstracts.A2863
- Joseph H. Sisson, Alcohol and Airways Function in Health and Disease, Alcohol. 2007 Aug; 41(5): 293–307. Doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2007.06.003
- Simet SM, Sisson JH. Alcohol’s Effects on Lung Health and Immunity. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):199-208. PMID: 26695745; PMCID: PMC4590617.
DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.