During the months of COVID-19 quarantining, virtual happy hours have become a popular way to stay connected with friends and family.
But as people have shifted to drinking at home, they are imbibing more than usual, potentially impairing their health.
“Alcohol in moderation is fine,” says Dr. Bharath Chakravarthy, a UCI Health emergency medicine physician and associate professor with the UCI School of Medicine who studies substance abuse.
“But drinking to excess can suppress the immune system, making it easier to become infected.”
Alcohol sales up
According to Nielsen surveys, retail alcohol sales have surged during the pandemic. In the last week of June, they were about 20% higher than the same period in 2019. The previous week, sales were 25% higher than in 2019.
Chakravarthy says he and his fellow emergency physicians at UCI Medical Center, Orange County's busiest trauma center, have been seeing the effects of increased alcohol consumption in patients seeking emergency care.
“In the emergency department, we have had an uptick in cases involving the overuse of alcohol,” he says. “We are seeing falls in the elderly, orthopedic trauma due to poor decision-making in adults and an increase in intimate partner violence due to substance abuse.”
False cure for anxiety
With the lack of social connection, loss of familiar lifestyle, financial pressures, fear of becoming infected and more, people are turning to the bottle to deal with stress, even binge drinking.
“People are trying to find a way to cope with what’s happening to them in these challenging times,” according to Chavravarthy.
“There’s a perception that alcohol is going to relieve anxiety. It gives us the false sense that we’re feeling relaxed. Even with one or two drinks, we don’t sleep as well, we’re dehydrated, we’re less likely to exercise. Drinking actually makes stress worse.”
While moderate drinking isn’t usually dangerous, excessive alcohol use has some serious negative effects in both the short and long term:
- It can put your immune system at risk, reducing the ability to fight infection.
- That may increase your susceptibility to the novel coronavirus and a host of other infections from the common cold to flu to pneumonia.
- Excessive drinking is known to damage the liver, cardiovascular system, memory and other systems.
How much is too much?
Two or three drinks may be enough to put your immune system at risk, says Chakravarthy. But other behaviors that may indicate a person has a drinking problem, include:
- Drinking alcoholic beverages daily
- Having more than several drinks a day
- Binge drinking defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention as having five or more drinks in two hours for men, and four or more for women.
But in this era, it’s not just people suffering from alcoholism who are turning up in emergency rooms.
“Any amount of alcohol can put us at risk of traumatic injury,” he says.
“If a society is drinking more, that puts us at increased risk when we are walking down stairs, climbing a ladder to fix a lightbulb or even gardening injuries. We’re seeing an increase in those types of injuries in the emergency department.”
Alcohol linked to injury and abuse
Historically, one-third of the patients who come to UCI Medical Center's ER with broken bones, sprains, head knocks, burns or other injuries have at least some alcohol in their system. Alcohol is also a factor in many traffic accidents.
Now, with fewer cars on the road during the COVID-19 outbreak, injuries from traffic collisions are down a bit. But doctors across the country are seeing effects of domestic violence and child abuse that have been exacerbated by alcohol consumption during the quarantine, Chakravarthy says.
Patients treated at UCI Medical Center with trauma-related injuries are offered a quiz called CASI, or Computerized Alcohol Screening and Intervention. The test helps patients rate their alcohol consumption and learn whether drinking is beginning to affect their well-being.
Depending on the individual case, Chakravarthy says the patient may also be referred for additional consultation.
“We have an excellent team of social workers, substance-use navigators and mental health advocates who get intimately involved with patients,” he says. “They provide the best evidenced-based treatment options through motivational interviews and referrals.”
Optimize mental, physical health
All in all, getting physical exercise and finding other ways to relieve anxiety and stress is a healthier way to cope with the disruptions to our lives caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s important to optimize your mental health and your physical health as much as possible,” Chakravarthy says. “Then if we’re exposed to COVID, flu, pneumonia, or whatever, our bodies are ready to fight it.”
It may be something of a cliché, but he feels some comfort in knowing that when it comes to fighting COVID-19, “We’re all in this together.”
Instead of reaching for the bottle when feeling stressed, the emergency room physician thinks about other people.
“In the midst of all this tragedy," he says, "if you can focus on other people you won’t feel alone.”