Respiratory Health And Alcohol

What is good respiratory health?

Imagine being out on an open field with blue skies and the sun shining. You’re gliding through the grass and as you do, you take a deep breath in…and breathe out to exhale. You did this with so much ease, with no pain or discomfort in the chest and no coughing. Now let’s say you begin walking up and down a hill,  and you feel a bit breathless but no discomfort or pain, and you’re not fighting or gasping for air. This is an example of what having good respiratory health feels like, breathing with ease. Sadly many people out there face a constant battle with their breathing and simple tasks that may be easy for some to carry out might be very difficult for people with respiratory problems.

Our respiratory system’s main function is to move fresh air into our body and remove the waste gases that are not needed. The respiratory system effectively keeps us alive, therefore it is essential to have and maintain good respiratory health.

Does alcohol affect respiratory health?

Alcohol consumption has been socially accepted across several cultures for many years now and plays a major role in social gatherings and occasions. Although drinking within the recommended limit is socially accepted, according to Public Health England, alcohol abuse is said to be one of the biggest risk factors for death, disability, and ill health in the UK, with over 358,000 hospital admissions related to alcohol misuse in the UK. Alcohol abuse is most commonly associated with liver disease; however, it can also harm your lungs, making you susceptible to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and even coronavirus.1,2 Studies show that females who are heavy drinkers are 2 to 3 times more likely to have respiratory conditions than their male counterparts.3 Other lung conditions associated with excess alcohol include worsening of asthma symptoms, worsening of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sepsis and lung infections.

In addition, regular alcohol consumption can lead to a weakened immune system which makes the lungs vulnerable to viruses and infections. 

Excessive mucus production

Heavy ingestion of alcohol for long periods can cause significant damage to the lungs. Within the lung’s surface, there are tiny hair-like structures called cilia which help move the mucus along and prevent it from building up in the lungs and causing damage. When alcohol is consumed excessively, it begins to damage these cilia by weakening the structure causing increased mucus buildup in the lungs. This leads to shortness of breath and further lung complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis.4

Lower levels of nitric oxide

Nitric oxide is a colourless gas exhaled by the body during respiration which helps to prevent respiratory infections by killing bacteria and also improves blood flow in the lungs. Low levels of nitric oxide can be detrimental as it can cause respiratory complications such as shortness of breath and other respiratory diseases.

Excessive alcohol consumption is said to cause lower levels of nitric oxide in heavy drinkers.6 A recent study shows that heavy drinkers were more likely to have lower nitric oxide levels in their exhaled breath compared to non-drinkers.6  

Lower levels of glutathione

Glutathione is a natural antioxidant in the body that helps to detox the body and get rid of excess waste alongside your liver. The liver is the main organ that detoxes your body and gets rid of toxins such as alcohol. Excessive alcohol is known to deplete the levels of glutathione in your liver which decreases its ability to detox effectively. When this occurs, toxins in your body begin to build up which causes hangover symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. Drinking excessively can lower your glutathione levels by at least 50%.7 In addition, glutathione can also slow down the development of bronchiectasis, which is a lung disease that widens the lungs and promotes build-up of mucus.8  

If you’re worried about your alcohol intake

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, there is plenty of help and support out there to seek advice from:

Get help now

Alcohol support - NHS (

Alcohol support services | Drinkaware


Excessive alcohol drinking can lead to respiratory complications such as shortness of breath, pneumonia and bronchiectasis. Other lung conditions affected by excessive alcohol drinking include worsening of asthma, worsening of COPD, and sepsis. Alcohol also causes increased mucus build-up by damaging and weakening the structures in the lungs, making the lung vulnerable to respiratory infections. If you are struggling with alcohol addiction, there is plenty of support out there to give you advice and help you on the journey to recovery.


  1. SAMOKHVALOV A, IRVING H, REHM J. Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for pneumonia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Epidemiology and Infection. 2010;138(12):1789-1795.
  2. Solopov P, Colunga Biancatelli R, Catravas J. Alcohol Increases Lung Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 Expression and Exacerbates Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Spike Protein Subunit 1–Induced Acute Lung Injury in K18-hACE2 Transgenic Mice. The American Journal of Pathology. 2022;192(7):990-1000.
  3. Simou E, Britton J, Leonardi-Bee J. Alcohol and the risk of pneumonia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. 2018;8(8):e022344
  4. Simet S, Sisson J. Alcohol's Effects on Lung Health and Immunity. Alcohol Research. 2015;37(2):199-208.
  5. Bhatty M, Pruett S, Swiatlo E, Nanduri B. Alcohol abuse and Streptococcus pneumoniae infections: consideration of virulence factors and impaired immune responses. Alcohol. 2011;45(6):523-539.
  6. Afshar M, Poole J, Cao G, Durazo R, Cooper R, Kovacs E et al. Exhaled Nitric Oxide Levels Among Adults With Excessive Alcohol Consumption. Chest. 2016;150(1):196-209.
  7. ANTOSOVA M, MOKRA D, PEPUCHA L, PLEVKOVA J, BUDAY T, STERUSKY M et al. Physiology of Nitric Oxide in the Respiratory System. Physiological Research. 2017;:S159-S172.
  8. Dickerhof N, Pearson J, Hoskin T, Berry L, Turner R, Sly P et al. Oxidative stress in early cystic fibrosis lung disease is exacerbated by airway glutathione deficiency. Free Radical Biology and Medicine. 2017;113:236-243.

Kadi Ajilogba

Master of Science - MS, Adult Health Nurse/Nursing, Keele University, England

With over 10 years of experience working within the healthcare industry, in both acute and mental health settings, I pride myself in being able to cater to the patient's needs using a holistic approach. I am an advocate for promoting patient safety and wellbeing and I also embrace the notion of making every contact count with patients of different backgrounds and cultures.

I have worked in mental health settings which means that I am able to deal with patients presenting with challenging behaviours or those perhaps going through a crisis. I am trained in PMVA (Prevention Management of Violence and Aggression) as well as Team Teach which looks at teaching positive behaviour management in order to support young people going through a mental health crisis. presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
Klarity is a citizen-centric health data management platform that enables citizens to securely access, control and share their own health data. Klarity Health Library aims to provide clear and evidence-based health and wellness related informative articles. 
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