COPD: Is There a Link With Smoking and Alcohol?

Last updated: February 2019

COPD, a lung disease that causes breathing problems due to inflammation and blockages in the airways, has long been associated with smoking. In fact, smoking is the most common risk factor for COPD. And 8 out of 10 people who die from COPD were smokers. 39% of people who have COPD continue to smoke, even though we know that continued smoking can greatly reduce the life span and aggravate the symptoms of COPD.1

These are the changes we see in the lungs of people who have COPD1:

  • The airways and tiny air sacs in the lungs lose their ability to stretch and shrink back
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed
  • Airway walls become irritated and swollen
  • Your airways make more mucus than usual, which can block the air flow in and out

Smoking accelerates these changes. And, unfortunately, people who smoke often also drink, sometimes to excess.2 So, in this post, I'm going to examine the relationship between smoking, alcohol consumption and COPD.

How Drinking and Smoking Are Connected

According to an "Alcohol Alert" put out by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, people who are dependent on alcohol are also three times as likely to be smokers as those who do not drink alcohol regularly. And people who smoke are four times as likely to be alcohol dependent as the general population.2 Also, alcohol and tobacco are among the top preventable causes of death in the U.S.

Alcoholics who smoke are at much higher risk of:2

  • Lung disease
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease

Co-use also contributes to a higher risk of traumatic death, such as car crashes.

The Link Between Alcohol Use and COPD

So, we know that there is a connection between smoking and COPD in most cases. And people who smoke are more likely to drink in excess as well. But is there a link between drinking alcohol and COPD risk or progression?

Research suggests there is.3 Here are a few of the ways drinking alcohol may have a negative impact on COPD:

  • Alcohol abuse is a significant risk factor for pneumonia. Pneumonia and other respiratory infections are extremely risky for people with COPD, as the infections will make COPD symptoms much worse.
  • Heavy drinking may reduce your levels of glutathione. This is an antioxidant that helps keeps lungs healthy by protecting from smoke damage.
  • Regular drinking affects your mucociliary system in your airways from working effectively. So, it's harder for you the clear out mucus and other substances from your airways.

One study found that being diagnosed with a serious, chronic illness often leads to people quitting drinking.4 But they also found that this was not true of people who have COPD. Because researchers learned that many of these people drank heavily before their COPD diagnosis, it was difficult to determine what role alcohol actually played in the development of COPD.

Another study found that independent of smoking, there was not a link between alcohol abuse and COPD flare-ups.5 So, it appears that more specific research may be needed along these lines, before we reach a full understanding.

In Summary

It's clear that smoking and drinking alcohol in excess are both unhealthy lifestyle choices, for many reasons. And it also seems clear that if you smoke, you're more likely to drink too much. Or that when you drink, you're more likely to smoke. So, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that people who have COPD and who both smoke and drink are at risk of having more health problems than those who practice a healthier lifestyle.

If you have COPD and are still smoking, I encourage you to make a plan to quit as soon as possible. And if you drink regularly and/or in excess, then stopping that is also a healthy step. If you do those two things, it will greatly increase your chances of reducing your COPD symptoms and living a healthier, happier life.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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