Can drug and alcohol use increase my risk of getting COVID?
Recent reports estimate the number of people drinking at risky levels in the UK has doubled to 8.5 million since COVID-19 hit. However regardless of whether you consider yourself a social drinker or are drinking at levels indicated as risky there will be an effect on your respiratory system – something that is critical when trying to prevent catching COVID-19 or minimizing the impact if you do catch it.
The use of drugs, in particular cocaine in its powder form or as crack, also has a significant effect on the respiratory system; and with 23kg of cocaine being snorted in London alone every day the impact on the chances of catching COVID-19 or minimizing the impact if you do catch it is a concern.
Over the years, research has supported an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects. Through various mechanisms, alcohol appears to disrupt the immune pathways and impair the body’s ability to defend against infection. Because of this, those drinking at harmful or hazardous levels are particularly vulnerable to contracting respiratory infections and diseases and recovering more slowly from them. But it is not just heavy or binge drinking that increases these risks; research shows that even those that are drinking moderately can experience negative health consequences and some degree of impaired immune system functioning.
Cocaine also has multiple effects on the respiratory system, both acute and chronic. The effects of cocaine to the lungs depends on the route of administration (oral, nasal, intravenous), dose size, frequency of use, and presence of other associated substances like heroin and glucose powder. The damage to the respiratory system is vast and includes airway injury; asthma; pulmonary edema; pulmonary hemorrhage; “crack lung”, eosinophilic lung disease; bronchiolitis obliterans (a life-threatening form of non-reversible obstructive lung disease), pneumonia, interstitial lung disease; pulmonary hypertension and emphysema.
Cocaine and alcohol use and the immune system
Alcohol intake decreases the inherent ability of the lung tissues to clear foreign bodies and, at a more microscopic level, it has an adverse effect on specialized white blood cells and other immune system components, that otherwise help to keep us healthy.
There are further studies that found that those individuals hospitalized with pneumonia, and whose drinking was considered risky, experienced a higher rate of death than predicted for all hospitalized patients. Research also shows that those drinking at harmful and hazardous levels may be as much as 3 to 4 times as likely as non- harmful and hazardous patients to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Should it develop, ARDS has a very high mortality rate; it’s been estimated that as many as 40-50% of those who develop this form of severe lung injury will die from it. Studies also found that in addition to increasing the risk for developing ARDS, individuals struggling with alcohol problems were more likely to develop a critical illness that puts them at risk for ARDS in the first place.
Cocaine use also effects the immune system. Studies as far back as the 1990s found that using cocaine can alter and impair the immune system. In 2004 McLean Hospital Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center in Belmont, Massachusetts, USA found that cocaine use has a direct biological effect that decreases the user’s ability to fight off infections. They found that a key immune system component, a protein called interleukin-6 (IL-6), responded less effectively to an immunological challenge in patients who had used cocaine. Cocaine use also impairs your immune system in another way. It’s a well-known fact that snorting cocaine damages mucous membranes in the nose, throat, and lungs, which in turn can lead to upper respiratory infections or susceptibility to these conditions.
We know COVID-19 gets into the body via contact with the mucous membranes that line the nose, mouth, and eyes. We also know that the virus then infects the upper or lower part of the respiratory tract, travelling down the airways and, in some cases, the infection can reach all the way down into the alveoli (the tiny air sacs in the lungs that take up the oxygen we breathe that keeps the body going).
As the infection travels into the respiratory tract, the immune system is supposed to fight back. However as just indicated above both alcohol and cocaine have very real negative effects on the immune system and on the respiratory system as a whole.
This being the case at a time of a COVID pandemic there are real and significant reasons why addressing your cocaine and alcohol use is not only beneficial for yourself and your family but will also reduce the risk of catching COVID or at least minimize its effects if you do catch it.
The staff at Help Me Stop have all had problems with drugs or alcohol in the past, so we know first-hand how easy it is for your drinking and use of drugs to get out of hand. Equally we know, as psychotherapists, and through life experience how to beat it. As one of our former clients says we have a programme that helps you deal with your drug and alcohol issues and “deal with real life on life’s terms”.
Help Me Stop offers a free assessment, which we can do face to face or online. We also offer a range of effective, intensive face to face and online programmes to address alcohol and drug use. Call us now on 0208 191 9174 or jump onto Live Chat/email us directly at https://helpmestop.org.uk/contact-us/
Chris Cordell is Help Me Stop’s General Manager and is a senior associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Certified International Recovery Specialist, member of the International Society of Addiction Medicine and a member of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals.