Alcohol Abuse And The Increased Risk of Pneumonia
Each year in the United States, more than 250,000 require hospital care due to pneumonia and nearly 50,000 people die from the disease each year.1 And over the years, research has shown that heavy alcohol drinkers are at increased risk of contracting various forms of pneumonia, as well as suffering from respiratory distress and acute lung injury.2
Whether you regularly drink or enjoy an adult beverage only on occasion, alcohol can have negative effects on your mind and body. Studies also show that excessive alcohol use may have a number of adverse effects on the human immune system, which could lead to an increased risk of infections such as pneumonia.3
With increased knowledge about the potential immunological effects of alcohol, we may arrive at a better understanding of how to decrease the risk of contracting pneumonia as well as how to better treat the accompanying respiratory distress or lung injury that is more commonly seen in cases of problematic drinking.
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs by a viral, bacterial or fungal pathogen that results in an accumulation of fluid and spent white blood cells (i.e., pus) in the air sacs of the lungs, or alveoli.4,5 Symptoms can be mild or severe and may include fever, chills, a cough with phlegm, and trouble breathing.5
Those most at risk for developing pneumonia include:1,5
- Children under the age of 5.
- Adults 65 and older.
- Individuals with certain chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
- Individuals with underdeveloped or weakened immune systems.
- Cigarette smokers.
To diagnose pneumonia, your doctor will review your medical history, do a physical exam, and order imaging and lab tests to better confirm the presence of pneumonia; blood and sputum cultures may further be performed to identify a causative organism.5 You may have pneumonia, or you may have another infection if you have chest pain, trouble breathing, and a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.5 If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should see your physician immediately.
Types of Pneumonia
Bacterial:6 Treated with antibiotics, this condition affects about 900,000 Americans every year. Bacterial pneumonia may be contracted on its own, but it may develop in association with a previous viral cold or a bout of the flu. Bacterial pneumonias commonly affect just one part of a lung (i.e., lobar pneumonia).
Viral:6 In adults, viral pneumonia is most commonly caused by the influenza virus, which can be treated with antiviral medication if caught in time. Many viral pneumonias last a shorter time than bacterial pneumonia and are less likely to become severe—though these risks may be higher in those with a heart condition or existing lung disease. Unlike other forms of pneumonia, viral pneumonias are less likely to cause a fluid buildup in the lungs.
Fungi:5,6 Caused by a yeast-like fungus, pneumocystis pneumonia is a serious fungal infection that most commonly occurs in people who have weakened immune systems and/or chronic health problems. It may also develop in those who are exposed to large doses of certain fungi from contaminated soil or bird droppings. Other fungal pneumonias include cryptococcus, coccidioidomycosis, and histoplasmosis.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Immune System
Over the years, research has supported an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects.7 Through various mechanisms, alcohol may disrupt immune pathways and impair the body’s ability to defend against infection.7
Because of this, heavy alcohol drinkers and those diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may be among those particularly vulnerable to contracting pneumonia, developing more severe pneumonia, and recovering more slowly from the disease. But it may not just be heavy drinking that increases these risks; research shows that even non-chronic alcohol drinkers can experience negative health consequences and some degree of impaired immune system functioning.7
There are many reasons why a person struggling with alcohol abuse may contract pneumonia and suffer serious harm or even death.8 Some of these reasons include:2
- Blunted cough and gag reflexes which may more commonly lead to aspiration of certain oropharyngeal organisms.
- Decreased ability to clear mucus from lungs.
- Impaired immune defenses and decreased response to pathogen exposure.
Alcohol intake can decrease the inherent ability of our lung tissues to clear foreign bodies and, on a more microscopic level, have an adverse effect on specialized white blood cells and other immune system components, that otherwise help to keep us healthy.9
One study also found that alcoholic patients hospitalized with pneumonia experienced a rate of death higher than predicted for all hospitalized patients.2 Research also shows alcoholics may be as much as 3 to 4 times as likely as non-alcoholic 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.2
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome
Alcohol abuse can increase an individual’s risk of acute lung injury and ARDS development.2 ARDS can result in severe deficiency of oxygen in the bloodstream as a result of widespread alveolar (i.e., air sacs) inflammation and the resultant accumulation of fluid in these airspaces.2 While there are a number of factors that can lead to ARDS (e.g., physical trauma, sepsis, aspiration-induced lung injury, bacterial infection), alcohol abuse has been shown to increase the odds of any given at-risk individual developing the condition.2
Studies also found that in addition to increasing the risk for developing ARDS, individuals struggling with alcohol abuse were more likely to develop a critical illness that puts them at risk for ARDS in the first place.2
Reducing the Risk of Pneumonia
One of the best ways to minimize your risk of pneumonia is to get a yearly flu shot and inquire about your need for any additional vaccines to help prevent infections by bacteria and viruses that may lead to pneumonia.10 It is also important to wash your hands regularly and avoid tobacco as smokers are at higher risk of getting pneumonia.10
If you are worried about pneumonia or chronic lung damage, avoiding alcohol is also one of the best ways to reduce the risk of these conditions.11 Abstinence can also limit the mortality of alcohol-related diseases including pneumonia and acute lung injury.11
However, quitting can be challenging, especially if you’ve tried in the past without success. As the parent company of Alcohol.org, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is dedicated to making recovery accessible to everyone in need. If you feel you or a loved one may be abusing alcohol or have developed an AUD, we are here to help.
We are a nationwide provider of addiction treatment centers offering a combination of proven therapies and services to meet your individual needs. Just deciding that it’s time to seek treatment for alcoholism can be challenging. Choosing where to seek treatment, what to look for within a facility, or what to expect while in recovery can make the process seem even more daunting.
Our admissions navigators are available 24/7 and can discuss your treatment options with you and give you more insight into how the process may work. Call our hotline now at