Researchers have not found clear evidence that drinking alcohol can directly cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, drinking alcohol may damage the lungs and the body’s immune response. This could make it harder to breathe and increase a person’s risk of COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of conditions that make it hard for air to pass through the lungs. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Smoking is a significant cause of COPD. According to the American Lung Association, 85–90% of COPD cases result from smoking, either directly or from secondhand smoke.

Researchers have also found some links between COPD and alcohol use. Studies have not shown whether alcohol can directly lead to COPD. But these links, especially when combined with smoking, may be enough to discourage people from drinking alcohol if they are at risk for COPD or living with COPD.

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Research shows that drinking alcohol may have negative effects on a person’s lungs and immune response. The authors of a 2016 study concluded that people with alcohol use disorder are more likely to experience lung injury and respiratory infections.

Research also suggests that alcohol could cause breathing problems by negatively impacting the healthy function of the lungs. People may have a harder time coughing after consuming alcohol, which means they may not be able to clear their lungs appropriately.

Alcohol may also interfere with the effectiveness of antimicrobial agents in the airway and the body’s natural immune response. Researchers have found that heavy drinking reduces levels of an antioxidant in the body called glutathione. This antioxidant helps protect the lungs from damage caused by inhaled toxins such as tobacco smoke.

The authors of another study identified a link between regular consumption of alcohol and lung problems in otherwise healthy individuals. Since COPD is a lung condition, any negative impact of alcohol on the lungs may make a person more predisposed to develop a COPD disease.

For some people drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are associated behaviors. A 2015 study identified a relationship between heavy drinking and persistent smoking or failing to quit smoking.

Although not everyone who drinks also smokes, one study did show that within a sample of people ages 40 to 64, 45% of people who reported that they do smoke also reported engaging in very heavy drinking. Since COPD is most often diagnosed after age 45, heavy alcohol use also could potentially be a contributing factor for smokers who develop the disease.

Drinking alcohol is a personal choice. A person with a health issue like COPD or a person with a risk of the disease may wish to take into account the complications that alcohol can cause.

Since research shows that high consumption of alcohol over a long period can harm the body, including the lungs, people should avoid heavy drinking.

When it comes to moderate drinking, it is still not easy to determine a generally safe amount of alcohol a person could drink if they have COPD or are at risk for the condition. This is due to other individual factors like overall health, the regularity of drinking, and the progression or risk of the disease. A person should discuss their specific situation with a doctor.

In addition, people with COPD also have to consider how any medications they are taking to treat their condition may interact with alcohol.

In addition to smoking, people who encounter high levels of environmental pollution are at risk for lung damage that could cause the disease. This group includes people who regularly inhale chemicals, wood, or dust particles at work.

Another risk factor is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or AAT deficiency. This rare genetic disorder reduces the body’s ability to protect the lungs, which makes a person more prone to develop COPD.

A person with any of these risk factors needs to consider them when deciding whether to also drink alcohol.

Researchers have yet to establish a direct link between COPD and alcohol. There are, however, some indirect links. Regular, heavy drinking can damage the immune system and the lungs. This may increase a person’s risk for COPD.

If a person has COPD or is at risk for the disease, they should consider staying away from alcohol. People who tend to smoke heavily when they drink should also consider refraining from drinking. People with COPD or at risk for the disease should consult with a doctor before deciding whether to drink alcohol and how much.