Online partying, Zoom happy hours, “quarantinis”, alcohol delivery and to-go margaritas are becoming a massive hit during this COVID-19 pandemic. While many industries have financially struggled due to the stay at home orders and business closures, alcohol consumption and sales have skyrocketed. More people are stuck at home, have been laid off from work, and have been temporarily turning to alcohol to relieve stress, sadness, and loneliness.
According to a news article published in CBSN Los Angeles, “total alcohol sales were up 22% for the week ending March 28 compared to the same period a year ago, and beers, flavored malt beverage, and cider sales were up 17%, while spirits and wine sales were each up 27%. After hard seltzers, premade cocktails and other ready-to-drink spirits, tequila, gin, and whiskey all saw growth as high as 45%”.
This rise in alcohol consumption and sales does not only concern many healthcare professionals, but it has become a slippery slope. Daily drinking can quickly become a habit, which can turn into alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder affects nearly 15 million adults in the United States, according to the CDC. Each year, an estimated 88,000 individuals in the United States die from alcohol-related causes, making alcohol the third leading cause of death in the United States. Motor vehicle accidents, accidental drowning, cancer, liver failure, and heart disease are some of the common causes of deaths associated with alcohol use disorder.
This increase in COVID drinking is especially triggering for those individuals who are in recovery for an alcohol use disorder or other substance use disorder. Most of these individuals have been away from their support groups and treatment teams and have transitioned into virtual therapy, which often makes them feel isolated. The combination of isolation, stress, and easy access to alcohol can be a dangerous recipe for relapse.
Health effects of alcohol consumption on COVID-19
Alcohol is known to weaken the immune system, causing more individuals to be susceptible to bacterial and viral infections, specifically pneumonia. Alcohol also increases inflammation and can contribute to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Both ARDS and pneumonia have been commonly seen in patients with COVID-19 as COVID-19 primarily affects the lungs resulting in secondary infections and inflammation.
Eventually, the virus will die off, and the economy will bounce back. People will go back to work, and although our society may see a “new normal” in terms of social distancing and face coverings in public, the effects of heavy alcohol use can be long-lasting. Many experts are fearful that even when the COVID is said and done, the lingering effects of the trauma, depression, anxiety, and fear may last much longer than the virus itself. As a coping mechanism, many people may continue to turn to alcohol to relieve negative feelings and emotions temporarily. Other people may need to have a drink in the morning to prevent withdrawals while many others may drink because they are still bored and lonely since they have not been able to become employed after this crisis ends. This sharp rise in alcohol consumption and sales may only be temporary, but the effects may be long-lasting.
Signs and symptoms associated with alcohol use disorder
It may be challenging for many to recognize or admit that there is an underlying alcohol use disorder. We often will be in denial and make excuses for our drinking patterns. The stress and consequences associated with COVID-19 can be a significant reason why many individuals have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. The following are red flags associated with alcohol use disorder:
- Have you ever tried to stop drinking for a week or longer but only lasted a couple of days?
- Has your drinking ever caused you trouble at home?
- Has your drinking ever caused you trouble with your job?
- Have you ever felt the need to have a drink in the morning to curb shakiness?
- Do you have “blackouts”? A blackout occurs when you have been drinking for a period of time, and you cannot recall any events.
- Do you drink when you are stressed out, disappointed, or are in a fight with someone?
- Have you ever had withdrawal symptoms from alcohol? These can include a racing heart, nausea, vomiting, tremors, or seizures.
- Have you ever operated a motor vehicle while under the influence?
- Have you ever tried to hide your drinking habits from your friends or family?
- Has anyone close to you expressed concern about your drinking?
- Do you often find yourself in a hurry to have your first drink of the day?
- Do you ever feel disappointed or uncomfortable if alcohol is not available in a social setting?
Regardless if your alcohol disorder initiated because of COVID-19 or if you had tendencies before the pandemic, you must recognize your behaviors and seek help. Seeking professional treatment for alcohol use disorder is vital to prevent complications associated with alcohol withdrawal. Quitting alcohol without any supervised treatment can result in medical complications such as abnormal heart rhythms and seizures.
ARC is a full-service addiction treatment center located in the Los Angeles area that has remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The treatment staff at ARC ensures that your detox, treatment, and recovery are tailored to your individual needs. Our goal is to provide individualized treatment in a safe and secure environment in hopes that you can live a happy, healthier, and more prosperous future.
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases, including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.