With drinks like the Quarantini, many people are toasting to their colleagues and friends and de-stressing from everything COVID-19 through virtual happy hours. It may seem like innocent fun, but physicians warn that turning to alcohol ― whether to escape or feel good ―can lead to a host of physical and mental problems, including alcohol dependence and depression.
“Socialization through Zoom happy hours can be fun and beneficial,” said Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., deputy medical director, chief of cardiology and certified lipid specialist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “The concern, however, can include a sense of pressure to participate and drinking more than just a drink or two. And the fun may be fleeting.”
Typically, alcohol consumption spikes during holidays and times of crisis. During COVID-19, online alcohol orders have risen by nearly 30 percent, and curbside pick-up, drinks-to-go and bar drink kits make it easy to sip your favorite beer, wine or cocktail at home in isolation or with groups in virtual parties.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is best to avoid alcohol altogether during the pandemic because it can undermine your immune system and even increase your risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), one of the causes of death from COVID-19. In addition, they stress that alcohol can impair thinking and lead to risk-taking behavior, negatively affect every organ of the body and is closely linked with violence.
If you choose to drink, be wary. A study by the British Medical Journal showed that between 1999 and 2016, the death rate of young adults ages 25-34 from alcohol-related liver disease nearly tripled. Alcohol-related deaths are the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., killing some 85,000 people annually, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Even among otherwise healthy people, “alcohol can have deleterious effects,” Dr. Fialkow said. “It can cause a poor night’s sleep, raise blood pressure and blood sugar and cause long-term bad health consequences.” Alcohol is known to be a risk factor for certain cancers, and if you are pregnant, can harm the fetus. Alcohol does not destroy the coronavirus.
There is much debate over what is considered a healthy amount of alcohol. Some organizations, such as the WHO, say no amount is safe. Dr. Fialkow says a general guideline is no more than 1-3 drinks daily (or under 7 drinks a week) for a woman and 1-4 daily (or under 14 drinks a week) for a man. Anything above these numbers is considered heavy alcohol use. “There should be no allowance for more alcohol during a crisis than social drinking otherwise,” he said.
Those who have addictive tendencies need to be especially mindful. “Know yourself. If you have a family history or a personal history of alcohol abuse, stay away,” Dr. Fialkow said. “If you find you are craving alcohol or desire it during the day, stay away and seek help if necessary.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many addiction treatment programs, support groups and mental health crisis centers are reporting an uptick in calls. If you think you may have a problem, talk to your primary care physician or another health professional and/or contact one of the hotlines.
Healthy ways to cope with stress include sticking to a routine, exercising daily, talking walks outside, eating healthy and natural foods and getting a good night’s sleep.