Home / The Physical & Psychological Effects of Alcohol / The Risk of Getting Pneumonia

About 87 percent of American adults, ages 18 and older, try at least one alcohol drink in their lives; however, about 30 percent never drink again, and 30 percent drink less than once per week. Since moderate drinking is about one drink per day, six days a week or less, over half of the adult population in the United States drinks less than moderately. For these millions of adults, this helps to reduce the risk of many long-term health problems, including liver damage, ulcers, cancer, heart and lung diseases.

However, about 24 million American adults, or about 10 percent of the population, struggles with binge drinking, heavy drinking, and even alcohol use disorder, consuming an astonishing 74 drinks per week, or just over 10 drinks per day. For reference:

  • Binge drinking: For women, this is more than four servings of alcohol in two hours, and for men, more than five servings of alcohol in two hours.
  • Heavy drinking: This is more than one drink per day, or seven drinks per week for women, and more than two drinks per day, or more than 15 drinks per week, for men.

Drinking beyond moderation increases the risk of serious harm, especially from chronic illnesses. Excessive alcohol consumption also disrupts many body systems, including digestion, brain function, and even immune system effectiveness. When the immune system is suppressed or harmed, the risk of infection skyrockets. Among people who drink too much, infections are common, especially lung infections like pneumonia.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is inflammation in one or both lungs caused by an infection. The source of the infection can be viral, bacterial, fungal, or something else. A person with pneumonia will have difficulty breathing since the air sacs of their lungs fill with fluid; they will likely begin coughing, causing their lungs to excrete phlegm or pus. They may also develop chills and sweating like with the flu, a fever, and trouble moving. Pneumonia can range from mild to life-threatening. It is riskiest for infants and young children, older adults over the age of 65, and anyone who has immune system suppression due to a primary infection, genetic condition, prescription, or addiction.

Since 2001, pneumonia has been recorded as the sixth most common cause of death in the United States. About 1 million people on average require hospitalization for pneumonia every year. While most adolescents and adults can easily fight off pneumonia, it is still possible to acquire the condition. A person in this age group may develop walking pneumonia, meaning they have a few symptoms of the condition and are infectious, but they do not suffer greatly and can continue their daily routine.

General symptoms associated with pneumonia include:

  • Chest pain when breathing
  • Excessive coughing
  • Profusion of phlegm or mucous when coughing
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Fever, sweating, and/or chills
  • Lower body temperature
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion or changes in mental awareness

Trouble breathing, chest pain, and a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher means you should go to the doctor immediately. You may have pneumonia, or you may have another infection that requires medical attention.

Different types of pneumonia require different treatment. The top causes of pneumonia include flu virus, cold viruses, and bacteria including streptococcus pneumoniae and mycoplasma pneumoniae. Many adults acquire pneumonia by being hospitalized because they have an already suppressed immune system and are around other individuals who are also sick.

Types of pneumonia include:

  • Bacterial pneumonia: Treated with antibacterial medication, this condition affects about 900,000 Americans every year. Children younger than 5 and adults older than 65 should get vaccinated against this disease because they are at greatest risk.
  • Viral pneumonia: While antibacterial drugs will not help this form of pneumonia, it is most commonly caused by the influenza virus, which can be treated if caught in time. Unlike other forms of pneumonia, the lungs will not obviously fill up with fluid, but the person may have a hard time breathing and suffer from chest pain. The condition can be deadly among people who have a heart condition or existing lung disease.
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia: These tiny, free-living agents have not been classified as either bacterial or viruses, but they do cause many pneumonia infections every year. While it is one of the milder forms of pneumonia, it can last for a long time and cause serious distress in people with lowered immune systems.
  • Tuberculosis-caused pneumonia: Tuberculosis is caused by bacterial infection, but sometimes, the disease can trigger inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs that is classified as associated pneumonia.
  • Foreign particles: Accidentally inhaling particles of dust, food, saliva, or liquid can cause inflammation, fluid buildup, and infection leading to pneumonia. This is especially true for smokers or people who may aspirate on their vomit, including people who drink too much.

Lifestyle is sometimes associated with pneumonia, especially smoking drugs like cigarettes or marijuana or drinking too much alcohol.

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Alcohol, Lung Problems, and Pneumonia

Drinking too much suppresses the immune response, especially over time. The correlation between problem drinking and lung disease has been well documented since the 18th century, but only in the past few decades have medical researchers examined how the link between the two conditions works. A study dating back to the 1990s, for example, found that people who were hospitalized with pneumonia who struggled with alcohol abuse were much more likely to die compared to those who did not struggle with alcohol. On average, 20 percent of people hospitalized will die compared to 64.3 percent of people hospitalized for community-acquired pneumonia who struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD).

There are many complex reasons that a person struggling with alcohol abuse or dependence will contract pneumonia and suffer serious harm or death. Some of these risks include:

  • Increased risk of aspirating on gastric acid
  • Migration of microbes from the upper part of the throat into the lungs due to vomiting or lowered gag reflex
  • Less mucous clearance of bacteria from the upper airways
  • Lowered immune response in the lungs
  • Increased inflammation in the lungs, which increases the risk of infection or fluid

Additionally, people who struggle with AUD are more likely to suffer serious pneumonia infections because they are less likely to seek treatment or less likely to follow a treatment plan after they have been diagnosed. They are more likely to drink while taking antibiotics or other prescription drugs, which can decrease the efficacy of the medication, amplify serious side effects, and increase the risk of alcohol poisoning.

A recent study from Denmark found that heavy drinkers were at the highest risk of contracting lung diseases, including pneumonia. The study found this especially true of men who consumed more than 50 drinks per week, who were 80 percent more likely to go to the hospital after contracting this lung infection. For 24 million American adults, the risk of lung infection, especially pneumonia or tuberculosis, is exceptionally high.

Stop Drinking Too Much

Drinking too much means your immune system will be weakened, and you will be less likely to fight off any infection, including pneumonia. If you contract pneumonia, it is important to get an appropriate diagnosis from a physician and follow the prescribed treatment plan. To prevent future pneumonia or other infections, you must also seek help from an addiction treatment specialist. Detoxing from alcohol abuse requires medical oversight, since some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. Then, enter an evidence-based rehabilitation program to get behavioral therapy, which can help you change how you manage stress, react to triggers and cravings, and the choices you make around alcohol.

Drinking moderately is less likely to cause chronic health problems. If you are worried about lung infections or chronic lung damage, avoiding alcohol is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of these conditions. If you worry about how much alcohol you drink, working with a physician can help you understand whether you drink too much and need treatment for AUD.