This quarantine trend may increase the risk of COVID-19

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published April 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

The COVID-19 quarantine has sent alcohol sales skyrocketing. Just before stay-at-home orders went into effect in many states, in-store sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55% for the week ending March 21, according to market research firm Nielsen. Online sales were up 243%. It’s a sign of the times. And in these times, people are drinking more alcohol while stuck at home.

The COVID-19 crisis has even spawned its own cocktail: the Quarantini, popularized on Twitter. What’s in a Quarantini? It’s gin flavored with a packet of Emergen-C Super Orange. The latter is a fizzy drink mix that’s “[p]acked with Vitamin C [1,000 mg], plus other key antioxidants to support your immune system and B Vitamins to enhance energy naturally.”

What better way to fend off fearsome viruses than with a soothing cocktail that also boosts your immune system? Plus, alcohol kills germs, right? [wink, wink]

Alcohol kills germs?

As an ingredient in hand sanitizer, yes, alcohol kills germs. When drunk as a cocktail? Uh, no.

“Alcohol (at a concentration of at least 60% by volume) works as a disinfectant on your skin, but it has no such effect within your system when ingested,” the WHO stated. “Consumption of alcohol will not kill the virus in the inhaled air; it will not disinfect your mouth and throat; and it will not give you any kind of protection against COVID-19.”

If that’s not clear enough, the WHO also sternly warned: “Under no circumstances should you drink any type of alcoholic product as a means of preventing or treating COVID-19 infection.”

Stress buster?

OK, got it now? Drinking alcohol won’t kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Still, drinking alcohol is a great way to relieve stress, right? And, really, if this isn’t a stressful time, then what is?

Hold on—don’t fill up that martini glass just yet. One or two drinks may be fine to blow off a little steam, but drinking more than that, and drinking more often, can actually increase stress.

“Drinking alcohol has the unique ability to both relieve stress and to be the cause of it,” wrote Robert M. Anthenelli, MD, in an overview article in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. Dr. Anthenelli is professor and vice chair for VA Affairs and director of the Pacific Treatment and Research Center, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of California, San Diego, CA.

“At first glance, this notion of alcohol and other drugs of abuse working as stressors (ie, taxing to the individual) flies in the face of the more commonly held belief that ethanol has stress-response–dampening effects,” Dr. Anthenelli wrote.

But, with a closer look, it works like this: Drinking alcohol simultaneously increases brain levels of “feel-good” neurotransmitters (dopamine and others) while also raising levels of the major stress hormones in the brain and in the body (cortisol and others).

When drinking becomes frequent, “this struggle exerts its toll…on the brain and body, as there is a cost associated with the chronic efforts to adapt to these stressors,” explained Dr. Anthenelli. “Thus, drinking to relieve stress proves to be a double-edged sword.”

And, don’t forget—stress itself weakens the immune system. So, adding stress on top of more stress (thanks to alcohol) will only make things worse.

Lowers immunity?

Adding stress isn’t the only strike against drinking alcohol during this infectious pandemic. Alcohol use, especially heavy use, also weakens the immune system, which may reduce the body’s ability to cope with infectious diseases and potentially lead to a greater susceptibility to pneumonia (a severe complication of COVID-19).

“Clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia,” wrote researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Rutgers University in an editorial article published in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. “In addition to pneumonia, alcohol consumption has been linked to pulmonary diseases, including tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus, and [acute respiratory distress syndrome].”

The authors explained: “Alcohol disrupts ciliary function in the upper airways, impairs the function of immune cells (ie, alveolar macrophages and neutrophils), and weakens the barrier function of the epithelia in the lower airways. Often, the alcohol-provoked lung damage goes undetected until a second insult, such as a respiratory infection, leads to more severe lung diseases than those seen in nondrinkers.” [emphasis added]

Clearly, putting oneself at risk of a severe, infectious respiratory disease like COVID-19 for the sake of a few Quarantinis (or other alcoholic drinks) is not a wise gamble. Again, one or two drinks every once in a while is fine, but it’s dangerous to party like it’s the end of the world.

What does a Quarantini sound like?

In summary, drinking alcohol during stressful times can actually add to stress, and stress lowers immunity. Drinking alcohol to beat stress also directly decreases immunity. Thus, drinking may lead to more stress but less immunity—not a fun state to be in during these times. Last but not least, a Quarantini sounds like it would taste disgusting. So, put down the martini shaker and stay safe. 

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