People should avoid drinking alcohol before surgery. Alcohol consumption before surgery can lead to severe complications during surgery and recovery. In some cases, alcohol use before surgery can be life threatening.

Drinking alcohol before surgery can cause complications such as increased bleeding, interference with anesthesia, and delayed recovery. People need to disclose recent alcohol consumption to their surgeon or another healthcare professional involved in their surgery.

This article looks at why people need to avoid alcohol before surgery, what happens if they consume alcohol before surgery, and how long before surgery a person needs to stop consuming alcohol.

It also looks at how long after surgery a person may safely drink alcohol and answers some frequently asked questions.

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Consuming alcohol before surgery can lead to several health complications.

Increased bleeding

Alcohol can affect the blood in ways similar to blood thinning medication. If a person drinks alcohol before surgery, they may take longer to stop bleeding.

Bleeding during surgery can increase the length of time a person needs to stay in the hospital and increase the risk of complications and death.

Interference with anesthesia

Both long-term and short-term alcohol use can impact the effectiveness of anesthesia during surgery.

Long-term alcohol use can affect the functioning of the liver, which could mean doctors need to adjust the dose of anesthesia they would typically use. This could affect the efficacy and safety of anesthesia during surgery.

Additionally, drinking alcohol before surgery could delay gastric emptying, which is the speed at which food exits the stomach and enters the small intestine.

When a person undergoes a general anesthetic, their reflexes temporarily stop working. If a person’s stomach contains food or drink, there is a risk that they may vomit the contents of the stomach into the throat, where it could travel to the lungs. This process is called pulmonary aspiration and is potentially life threatening.

Drinking alcohol during the weeks leading up to surgery also increases the risks of other serious complications of anesthesia. These include accidental awareness, which is when a person wakes during surgery, and anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.

In some cases, complications of anesthesia can be fatal.

Postoperative complications

Drinking more than two drinks per day can increase the risks of various postoperative complications.

These include:

  • infections
  • longer hospital stays
  • pulmonary complications, which affect the respiratory system
  • admission to intensive care

Heavy alcohol use before surgery can increase the risk of death.

If a person drinks alcohol before elective surgery or surgeries that doctors have scheduled in advance, doctors may cancel and reschedule the surgery.

Surgeons may not go ahead with surgery due to the health risks and because a person who is intoxicated may have an impaired ability to consent to surgery.

If a person has alcohol use disorder, it is best they discuss treatment options with their doctor before surgery. Stopping drinking alcohol abruptly could lead to alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which could cause severe complications.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms could increase the risks of complications during surgery and recovery. Doctors can help a person withdraw from alcohol safely and may prescribe medications such as benzodiazepines to ease the symptoms of withdrawal.

People who have any level of alcohol dependence should ideally try to abstain from alcohol for 6–8 weeks before surgery to decrease the risks of potentially fatal complications.

Research suggests abstaining from alcohol for 2–4 weeks before surgery lowers the risk of postoperative complications.

After surgery, doctors may recommend a person abstain from alcohol for 5–6 weeks. Avoiding alcohol after surgery can reduce risks such as delayed healing, problems with heart function, and infection.

People should also avoid using alcohol in combination with opioids, which doctors often prescribe after surgery. Alcohol consumption with opioids can cause severe complications and may lead to death.

Below are the answers to some common questions about drinking alcohol before surgery.

Is it okay to drink alcohol the day before surgery?

It may not be safe to drink alcohol the day before surgery. The amount of time alcohol remains present in the body can vary based on a person’s genetic predisposition, overall health, and the type of alcoholic drink they consume.

Alcohol can continue to affect a person’s health for up to 24 hours after drinking.

Do doctors test for alcohol before surgery?

Doctors may ask a person whether they have had alcohol or any other substances before surgery. However, they do not routinely intervene in preoperative alcohol use.

A person needs to disclose whether they have consumed alcohol before surgery or whether they have an alcohol use disorder to undergo surgery as safely as possible.

What should people avoid before general anesthesia?

Before undergoing general anesthetic, a person may have to avoid eating any foods for at least 6 hours and drinking any beverages for at least 2 hours before surgery. Sometimes, a doctor may advise a person to only avoid certain types of food or drink.

A person should also avoid chewing gum during the fasting period before surgery.

Stopping smoking in the weeks before surgery can also help reduce the risks of complications from anesthesia.

Consuming alcohol before surgery increases the risks of various health complications. These include problems with anesthesia, increased bleeding, and delayed healing.

A person with substance use disorder should not attempt to stop using alcohol abruptly before surgery, as this could lead to alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Instead, they can speak with a healthcare professional who can prescribe medications and give advice on how to reduce alcohol consumption safely.

Individuals need to disclose their alcohol use to their healthcare team so that doctors can help them withdraw safely, manage symptoms, and minimize the risks of complications from surgery.