You and COVID-19 - what you can do to protect yourself -Part 1
With all the panic and fear around COVID-19, it is important to take personal responsibility for your own health as much as possible. No government or local authority can keep everyone safe, and not all of the sickest people will be able to get adequate care if the virus spreads too quickly through our communities.
So lets talk about what you can do on a daily basis to minimize your risk of severe illness - starting with your alcohol consumption.
Most people are aware that drinking alcohol “in excess” is bad for their health. What most people do not realize is that what they might consider “social drinking” is actually not safe. There are many social and personal consequences of drinking too much alcohol which will not be dealt with in this article. Neither will we go into long term adverse effects such as increasing the risk of cancers and other diseases.
Instead, let’s dive into the most relevant reason right now to stop drinking alcohol, or at least, cut back as much as possible. (Warning: if you are drinking every day and more than one or two drinks, do not stop abruptly, as in many people this can cause seizures! Instead, cut back gradually over a week or so.)
Most people are probably not aware that alcohol impairs your immune system - which makes you more likely to get sick - not a good thing during a pandemic!
Alcohol affects the immune system in several ways. Firstly, since it is an organic solvent, it damages the cells lining the intestines, which decreases your ability to absorb useful nutrients from your food. Another side effect of damaging these epithelial cells is that the damage to the barrier allows more bacteria to pass into the bloodstream from the gut.
Secondly, alcohol affects the microbiome, negatively changing the proportion of healthy to unhealthy bacteria and changing the way our good bugs interact with the immune system.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly during this pandemic, is that drinking can damage the function of the immune cells in the lungs and upper respiratory system, which puts you at higher risk for pneumonia and ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome). ARDS is a key feature of COVID-19 and the major reason for death from the disease. Developing ARDS means you will need to be admitted to an Intensive Care Unit for treatment. ICU’s around the world traditionally already run at close to full capacity, especially in winter, so any extra burden of COVID-19 cases is definitely going to lead to more deaths as not everyone will have access to artificial ventilation.
Now, if you are thinking that you really are not that heavy a drinker, or that you don’t drink every day, so you will be ok, let me tell you the bad news! Yes - heavy ongoing drinking is the worst for your immune system, but binge drinking can knock out your immune system for a short time. Binge drinking is defined by drinking enough to bring your blood alcohol level above 0.08g. This usually takes about 5 drinks for men and 4 for women in 2 hours. So if you are not safe to drive, you have temporarily damaged your immune system too.
You might not think it is much of a problem to have an under functioning immune system for just a few hours, but let’s look at the usual scenario for binge drinking. It usually happens in crowded settings, such as bars or parties where you are more likely to be infected by a virus. So you can see, going out for a night, to “tie one on” and relax and forget about your fears about the pandemic, can actually be the worst thing you can do for yourself right now.
Part 2: Cut back on whatever you are smoking!