The Link Between Alcohol and COPD

How drinking may worsen your condition

Alcohol does not independently cause lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, chronic alcohol exposure can be harmful to your lungs, worsening your condition and compounding the respiratory damage done by toxins like cigarette smoke. While this is not the most common health complication of drinking, alcohol consumption—even moderate amounts—can impair your breathing abilities, especially if you have lung disease.

If you have COPD or another pulmonary concern, examining your alcohol habits is a worthy part of your overall management strategy.

Close-up two men clinking glasses of whiskey drink alcohol beverage together at counter in the pub
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Alcohol and Lung Health

Alcohol often induces inflammation, impairing your immune system. This makes you more susceptible to all types of infections, including those of the lungs.

Heavy drinking also causes a deficiency of antioxidants like glutathione, making you more susceptible to oxidative stress. This cellular damage can predispose you to serious lung diseases if you are exposed to tobacco smoke, air pollution, dangerous chemicals, or other airway irritants.

Your mucus-clearing ability can be impaired by excessive alcohol use as well, as the cilia in your lungs that help clear mucus and infectious organisms can be harmed.

Alcohol has an even stronger effect on heart disease than it does on lung disease. Heart disease impairs breathing and can compound the respiratory problems of lung diseases like COPD.

Impact on Respiratory Function

Several pulmonary conditions are associated with alcohol use. Likewise, its effects can compound the damage that occurs in many chronic lung diseases themselves. For example, chronic alcohol consumption is associated with an increased incidence of acute respiratory distress syndrome, and it increases susceptibility to COPD-related mortality.

The effects of heavy alcohol use on measures of pulmonary function can be temporary or long-lasting, and there is no way to know when your breathing issues will become irreversible.

There is no proven link between changes in lung function and alcohol use alone. However, developing liver failure (cirrhosis) is associated with changes in lung function, such as:

Abstaining from alcohol may improve the diffusing capacity of your lungs.

Alcohol-Related Medication Interactions

Alcohol interferes with the action of a number of medications. This can have a major impact on your pulmonary function, especially if you already have a lung condition like COPD.

For example, drinking alcohol will increase the intoxicating effects of both anxiety and pain medications, which may dramatically slow your breathing to the point of being life-threatening.

Certain medications may be less effective due to interactions with alcohol. Glucocorticoids are often used for managing chronic lung conditions, while antibiotics are used to treat bacterial lung infections. You may not experience the therapeutic effects of these medications when you drink alcohol within a few days of your medication dose.

Liver disease, a common consequence of chronic alcohol use, impairs the liver's ability to detoxify medications. You may experience harmful effects of medications that are normally used to treat lung disease if you develop alcohol-induced liver disease.

A Word From Verywell

If you have COPD or another chronic lung disease and enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages, you should discuss your options with your healthcare provider. The amount you can safely drink depends on many factors—the severity of your lung disease, which medications you take, what other illnesses you have, and whether you smoke.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Mehta AJ, Guidot DM. Alcohol and the lungAlcohol Res. 2017;38(2):243–254.

  3. Arvers P. Alcohol consumption and lung damage: dangerous relationships. Rev Mal Respir. 2018;35(10):1039–1049. doi:10.1016/j.rmr.2018.02.009.

  4. Kaluza J, Harris HR, Linden A, Wolk A. Alcohol consumption and risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a prospective cohort study of men. Am J Epidemiol. 2019;188(5):907–916. doi:10.1093/aje/kwz020.

  5. NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Harmful interactions: mixing alcohol with medicines.

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.