A new study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research investigates why it takes people much longer to heal from wounds if they are injured while binge drinking.

In the US, 20-40% of hospitalized patients are affected by alcohol dependence and/or alcohol abuse.

One of the main problems involving the interactions of alcohol and wounds treated in the hospital - such as those suffered in car accidents, shootings or fires - is an increased risk of surgical site infections.

Surgical site infections cause patients to be hospitalized for twice as long, have higher rates of re-admission, and be twice as likely to die as patients who did not binge drink when they were injured.

The new study - by researchers at the Infectious Disease and Immunology Research Institute and Loyola University Health System in Maywood, IL - is the first to provide an explanation for why these recovery times are so extended.

Using an in vivo model, the researchers observed a typical pattern of binge drinking - 3 days of alcohol exposure, then 4 days of no alcohol, followed by 3 more days of alcohol exposure. The levels of alcohol exposure were equivalent to twice the legal driving limit.

Binge drinking drives away infection-eating macrophages

The researchers discovered that binge drinking reduces levels of a type of white blood cell - called macrophages. The job of these macrophages is to "chew up" bacteria and dust - thus cleaning our wounds of infection.

Fast facts about binge drinking
  • Approximately 79,000 people die each year in the US because of heavy drinking - a total of 2.3 million years of potential life lost.
  • Binge drinking is associated with a raised risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke, sudden cardiac death and heart attack.
  • In 2011, it was estimated that binge drinking costs the US economy $224 billion each year.

The macrophages were reduced during binge alcohol exposure because of impaired production of a protein. This protein - called macrophage inflammatory protein-1 alpha, or MIP-1α - "recruits" the macrophages to the wound site.

As well as MIP-1α, the production of another protein - called "CRAMP" - was inhibited. An antimicrobial peptide, CRAMP is found in the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) where it kills bacteria and signals immune system cells to help fight infection.

"Over the last decade, researchers have come to appreciate the critical role the skin has in modulating systemic responses to various stressors," lead author Katherine A. Radek, PhD, told Medical News Today, when we asked why this interaction between macrophages and binge drinking has not been documented before.

"Thus, the relationship between skin macrophages and binge alcohol exposure was likely overlooked," she continued, "due to a lack of understanding about the interdependence between the skin and systemic responses to stressors, such as binge alcohol exposure."

Dr. Radek hopes that her research will influence clinical process when diagnosing and treating binge drinking patients:

"We hope that intoxicated patients will be subject to more defined protocols and additional diagnostic testing for vulnerable organ systems, and perhaps an altered antibiotic regimen to prevent infection. Furthermore, the traumatic injury itself may act as a 'window of opportunity' to implement minor interventions that can help the patient alter his or her binge drinking behavior."

Recently, Medical News Today reported on an analysis from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which found approximately 5,000 US youths under the age of 21 die from unintentional injuries, homicides and suicides related to alcohol consumption every year.

From this data, the NIAAA were able to conclude that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 - where all US states are required to prohibit the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 21 - saves lives and should not be revoked.