Alcohol abuse is a serious problem that can impact multiple organs in the body, including the lungs.
Chronic alcohol use and heavy drinking can greatly increase the risk of multiple pulmonary conditions, including lung disease, alcoholic pneumonia, acute lung injury, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Any pre-existing lung disease could also be worsened by excessive alcohol consumption. However, being aware of the signs of alcoholic lung disease allows for early intervention and treatment.
What Is Alcoholic Lung Disease?
Alcoholic lung disease is an umbrella term for various diseases of the lungs caused by alcohol use. This term refers to the link between alcohol abuse and acute lung injury. Alcohol-related lung damage is most common among individuals who drink heavily or have been abusing alcohol for long periods.
While alcohol can cause a variety of lung-related problems like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), aspiration, and tuberculosis (TB), the main types of alcoholic lung disease are considered to be alcoholic pneumonia, acute lung injury, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). One way heavy drinking can impact the airways is by disrupting basic yet important functions like inhalation, decreasing saliva production, and increasing the risk for bacteria build-up in the mouth. These symptoms can contribute to lung disease and infection if left untreated.
Alcohol use can also negatively impact one’s immune system, ultimately inhibiting the body from fighting off infection. This also increases the risk of bacteria spreading into the trachea and lungs. Alcohol is also linked to inflammation and impairment of users’ gag reflexes, increasing the risk of pneumonia.
Alcohol lung disease and other lung problems can occur in any chronic drinker, regardless of age or health history. This includes people in their college years. If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol abuse, it can be important to recognize the early signs of alcoholic lung disease and catch it sooner rather than later.
The symptoms of alcoholic lung disease vary depending on the condition itself. Below are alcoholic lung disease symptoms according to the condition.
Alcoholic Pneumonia Symptoms
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs caused by the spread of viruses or bacteria. Currently, it’s the leading cause of death from infection in the U.S. One risk factor of pneumonia is – you guessed it – heavy drinking.
Alcohol can weaken or disrupt functions that control our body’s ability to process and fight bacteria. Drinking can also weaken our immune function in the lower airways, impairing the body’s ability to remove mucus from the lungs, which increases the risk of aspiration. Aspiration refers to inflammation and infection of the lungs or large airways that occurs when food or liquid is breathed into the airways or lungs instead of being swallowed.
There are various types of pneumonia, some of which are more severe than others. However, it’s important to note that pneumonia is more likely to be severe and even deadly in heavy drinkers. Common signs and symptoms of alcoholic pneumonia include:
- Chest pain
- Excessive mucus or phlegm when coughing
- Fever or chills
- Heavy coughing
- Low body temperature
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Stomach upset
Symptoms of Acute Lung Injury
Not only has alcohol consumption been linked to pneumonia, but it’s also been linked to an increased risk of acute conditions. This includes worsening symptoms of acute lung injury after a serious accident or trauma, as well as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Chronic alcohol use can contribute to acute lung injury because it depletes the body of the antioxidant glutathione, which plays a role in processing toxins and inflammation. Having low glutathione levels in the body due to alcohol use can make the lungs more vulnerable to injury following exposure to bacteria. Liver function may also be impacted for two reasons: antioxidant glutathione is produced in the liver, and alcohol is processed in the liver.
The signs and symptoms of acute lung injury may vary, as this is more of an umbrella term for more specific conditions.
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) Symptoms
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a severe type of lung injury that is often deadly. The most common causes of ARDS include a build-up of fluid in the lungs, severe pneumonia, or any other major lung injuries.
ARDS develops in response to severe inflammation and other lung-related damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption. The mortality rate for ARDS depends on the severity of the disease; it’s 27%, 32%, and 45% for mild, moderate, and severe, respectively.1 However, this rate is often higher in alcoholics or heavy drinkers.
Common symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome include:
- Shortness of breath
- Low blood oxygen
- Rapid breathing
- Clicking, bubbling, or rattling sounds in the lungs when breathing
Can Alcoholic Lung Disease Be Reversed?
In some cases, alcoholic lung disease can be reversed. However, a cure is more plausible in the earliest stages of the disease. For someone who’s developed a chronic or acute alcohol lung disease, a cure is less likely or simply not possible.
Unfortunately, some people don’t catch the disease early enough to get treatment and cure it. Instead, they may have to undergo certain procedures or take medication for the rest of their lives to keep their symptoms in check. For others, any form of recovery is not possible.
While we’ve mentioned heavy drinking, in particular, some people are more sensitive to alcohol and/or lung problems, meaning they may develop lung disease from drinking less alcohol. For this reason, we recommend avoiding drinking to prevent alcoholic lung disease and receiving alcohol treatment if a drinking problem is developing or has developed.
Get Alcohol Treatment and Avoid the Risks
People that are addicted to alcohol often require medical support to quit. Alcohol dependence, which can be severe in chronic alcoholics, can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms that can be fatal when left untreated. Instead of attempting an alcohol detox at home, Clearbrook recommends our medical detox in PA.
Our alcohol detox treatment is led by our medical team of physicians and nurses who offer 24-hour care and support. Because alcohol withdrawal symptoms are known to be severe and sometimes fatal, receiving professional care can prevent any complications from occurring.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol addiction and needs treatment, don’t wait to reach out. Call Clearbrook Treatment Centers today at 570-536-9621 for more information about our inpatient rehab programs in Pennsylvania.
- National Library of Medicine – Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome