Chronic Bronchitis and Alcohol

What is chronic bronchitis?

Brief description 

When the breathing tubes - also called bronchi - are in a state of inflammation (swelling and redness) and irritation, it is called bronchitis1. There are different types of bronchitis, the main ones being acute and chronic.

When the inflammation of the bronchi is long-term, it is called chronic bronchitis1. Commonly people with this condition get lung infections and chest infections very often. They may also have episodes of acute bronchitis (short in onset and severe type), when the symptoms get much worse, temporarily.

Chronic bronchitis belongs to a large group of diseases that affect the lungs, called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)1,2. This term refers to all lung diseases that block airflow and results in breathing difficulties. 

To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, you have to fulfil two requirements1,3:

  • The doctors must rule out other causes, such as different types of lung diseases
  • You have to exhibit a persistent cough and mucus for at least three months a year, two years in a row

What are the symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

Main symptoms 

When you have chronic bronchitis, your airways are filled with mucus. The tiny hairs that generally move the mucus around are damaged, resulting in a cough. This cough which tries to get rid of the mucus, is the number one symptom of chronic bronchitis2,3.

Further symptoms are:

  • Coughing up mucus
  • Tight chest
  • Wheezing breath (A whistling sound when breathing)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired

Due to lower oxygen levels, chronic bronchitis can also cause swollen feet, bluish skin and lips and even heart failure2.

As time goes on, the symptoms get worse. It might take years before the persistent cough results in shortness of breath. Symptoms also get worse in the winter due to the temperature drop and the decrease in humidity2,3.

As chronic bronchitis develops, it may cause frequent and severe infections in the airways and narrowing of the breathing tubes that cause trouble when breathing3

Due to the overlapping symptoms of different lung diseases, you must see visit your doctor for a diagnosis1,2.

Does alcohol make chronic bronchitis worse?

Alcohol cannot cause chronic bronchitis but can worsen the symptoms

Excessive alcohol consumption affects several functions of the body. Although it cannot cause chronic bronchitis, it does affect the symptoms of those who already have the lung condition4

The main areas affected are lung health, sleep quality and allergic reactions4.

Consuming large quantities of alcohol weakens the lungs' natural ability to clear themselves of mucus and worsens the chronic inflammation of airways. Subsequently, the COPD symptoms, such as breathing problems, persistent coughing and wheezing, deteriorate.

Prolonged alcohol consumption worsens lung function and might lead to death in COPD patients. The severity of symptoms depends on the length and concentration of alcohol exposure6.

Research on this topic has shown that people who consume no or lower quantities of alcohol are less likely to develop symptoms of COPD. However, those with excessive alcohol consumption often need hospitalization due to their worsening COPD symptoms.

Alcohol can trigger allergy-like symptoms if you have chronic bronchitis

Research shows that some people with COPD can develop allergy-like symptoms after consuming alcohol4,5. The main symptoms are the following:

  • Runny nose
  • Itching
  • Blocked up nose
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Persistent sneezing
  • Skin flushing

These symptoms are more common in people with COPD when they consume alcohol than when they do not consume it. All types of alcohol can cause these symptoms, especially wine, due to its histamine  and sulfite content. 

The allergic reaction-like symptoms caused by alcohol consumption contribute to worsening respiratory symptoms and breathing difficulties that occur with COPD5.

If you’re worried about your alcohol intake

Include some links to websites talking about how to get help when dealing with alcohol addiction

Alcohol misuse or abuse is when you drink in a way that is harmful to you or when you become dependent on it. If you are worried that you might have this problem, visit this NHS website to help you keep your alcohol consumption within safe boundaries.

There are several short- and long-term risks to high levels of alcohol consumption. Some of the short-term ones are:

  • Acquiring head injuries due to falling
  • Becoming violent and becoming a victim of violence
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Losing personal possessions

The long-term risks are serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, liver disease and several types of cancer.

If you are worried that you might be reliant on alcohol too much for your liking and might need help, there are plenty of sources for support. 

It’s a great first step to talk to your GP. They can discuss further steps with you for treatment that is appropriate and available for you.

Other organisations you can contact:

Conclusion

Chronic bronchitis is a severe condition that can heavily affect your lifestyle and shorten your lifespan. The symptoms, such as chest pain and difficulty breathing, worsen over time, especially when untreated. 

Some life choices, such as the consumption of high amounts of alcohol, can increase the severity of this condition. Recent research shows that alcohol consumption contributes to new symptoms similar to signs of an allergic reaction. Alcohol affects the functioning of the lungs and makes existing chronic bronchitis worse.

Consuming large amounts of alcohol affects your lung health and quality of life. If you feel you need help controlling your drinking habit, make out for support from organisations as mentioned above.

References

  1. John Hopkins Medicine. Chronic Bronchitis [Internet]. www.hopkinsmedicine.org. 2022. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/chronic-bronchitis
  2. NHS Choices. Bronchitis [Internet]. NHS. 2019. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bronchitis
  3. JOHNS HOPKINS Medicine. Chronic bronchitis [Internet]. John Hopkins Medicine. 2019. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/chronic-bronchitis
  4. Alcohol & COPD: Does Alcohol Affect COPD? | Interactions and Side Effects [Internet]. The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. [cited 2022 Sep 6]. Available from: https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/alcohol-abuse/does-alcohol-affect-copd
  5. Tabak C, Smit HA, Heederik D, Ocké MC, Kromhout D. Diet and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: independent beneficial effects of fruits, whole grains, and alcohol (the MORGEN study). Clinical and Experimental Allergy: Journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology [Internet]. 2001 May 1;31(5):747–55. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11422134/
  6. Sisson JH. Alcohol and airways function in health and disease. Alcohol [Internet]. 2007 Aug;41(5):293–307. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2081157/
  7. Nihlen U, Greiff LJ, Nyberg P, Persson CGA, Andersson M. Alcohol-induced upper airway symptoms: prevalence and co-morbidity. Respiratory Medicine. 2005 Jun;99(6):762–9.
  8. NHS. Overview - Alcohol misuse [Internet]. NHS. 2018. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/
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