Drinking alcohol can have a number of different physical effects. These can be short-term effects, experienced during or directly after drinking, or long-term health effects caused or impacted by chronic drinking.
One physical effect that people might experience is difficulty breathing after drinking alcohol. There can be a number of reasons for this, and it’s important to know the potential causes and risks.
Causes of Difficulty Breathing After Drinking Alcohol
There are a number of potential causes of difficulty breathing due to alcohol consumption.
If you drink a large amount, for example, you could be at risk of alcohol poisoning. According to the NHS, this could occur after drinking more than 12 units of alcohol – equivalent to around 6 pints of beer or medium glasses of wine – in a short period of time. Alcohol poisoning occurs when excessive amounts of alcohol start to interfere with the body’s automatic functions, including heart rate, gag reflex (which can increase your risk of choking) and breathing. This can be very dangerous, and the risks can be increased if you drink alcohol alongside other depressants such as opioids and tranquilisers.
Allergic Reactions and Asthma
Some people are also sensitive to chemicals such as histamines and sulphites that are present in alcoholic drinks. They may suffer allergic reactions, which can affect their breathing. These are sometimes referred to as alcohol-induced respiratory reactions and constrict the airways, just like ‘classical’ asthma.
This condition can affect people in different ways. Some people might notice symptoms including a tight chest, wheezing and a feeling of breathlessness after just a few sips of an alcoholic drink. Others might not experience symptoms until the next day. For some people, any alcoholic drink can trigger asthma symptoms, while for others, wine, beer and cider can be particularly troublesome due to high levels of sulphites and histamines.
Some studies have shown that drinking alcohol may have an impact on sleep apnoea – a condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing. Alcohol can cause the throat muscles to relax, which leads to more resistance during breathing. This can exacerbate obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) symptoms and lead to disruptive breathing episodes, as well as heavier snoring.
Regular drinking can also cause or contribute to a wide range of long-term health conditions, some of which are associated with difficulty in breathing.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (ACM) is a heart disease caused by chronic alcohol consumption. Shortness of breath can be an early symptom, along with fatigue, weakness, abnormal heartbeat and swelling of the feet, legs and ankles. The breathlessness can get worse without effective treatment and management, and the condition can lead to heart failure.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder
Drinking alcohol may also have an impact on chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), a term for a number of lung diseases that make it more difficult to breathe. It can be difficult for researchers to assess the impact precisely, as heavy drinkers are more likely to smoke than the general population (and those who smoke are also more likely to drink). It is believed that alcohol can impact COPD in a number of ways, however:
- Chronic alcohol intake can damage the surface of the lungs, making them less effective and making it increasingly difficult to expel mucus from the lungs. This can worsen any shortness of breath.
- Drinking can lower levels of glutathione, an antioxidant found within the lungs. This can lead to COPD flare-ups.
- Drinking alcohol can make a COPD sufferer less bothered by shallow breathing. While this might feel better, it can be dangerous as it can lead to an excess buildup of carbon dioxide in the lungs.
- Alcohol can interfere with common COPD medications, including glucocorticoids and antibiotics.
Infections That Affect Breathing
Chronic heavy drinkers may also be more at risk of developing other infections and conditions that affect the lungs and can lead to difficulty breathing. These can include pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Risks Associated with Difficulty Breathing
Difficulty breathing after drinking alcohol – or in any other situation – can pose a number of risks, depending on the underlying causes and severity.
For a start, even a milder shallowness of breath can be very uncomfortable and scary.
A recurring difficulty in breathing can make physical activities and exercise more difficult, which can add to existing health problems. This could also lead to weight gain and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
A severe difficulty in breathing, such as that caused by alcohol poisoning or a serious COPD flare-up, can be very dangerous and potentially fatal. Respiratory failure can occur when your blood doesn’t have enough oxygen or has too much carbon dioxide. It can cause loss of consciousness, brain damage and even death.
When to Seek Medical Attention
You should seek medical attention if you regularly find yourself struggling to breathe. There might be a number of underlying causes, but if you notice that it happens mostly after drinking, alcohol is likely to be a factor.
The NHS states that individuals should seek emergency assistance if they suffer sudden shortness of breath and:
• your chest feels tight or heavy.
• you have pain that spreads to your arms, back, neck and jaw.
• you feel sick or are being sick.
• you’re coughing up blood.
• you have pain or swelling in 1 of your legs.
You could be having a heart attack or a problem with your lungs or airway and should go to A&E or call 999 immediately.7
Preventing Difficulty Breathing After Drinking
The surest way to prevent difficulty breathing after drinking is to cut down on your alcohol consumption or quit entirely. This is particularly important if you believe you might have a problem with alcohol, or suffer from a condition such as COPD that can be made worse by drinking alcohol.
It can be very difficult to quit alcohol, especially if you have engaged in chronic heavy drinking for some time or have developed a dependency. At Cassiobury Court, our experts have a wealth of experience helping those who are struggling with alcohol addiction, so get in touch today to find out more about how we can help.