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COVID-19 Poses Unique Challenges For Alcohol Drinkers

If you're struggling with alcohol misuse, the pandemic may create its own unique set of unique challenges for you. Find out how COVID-19 may affect you.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been the main topic of conversation on television, social media, and even in our own homes over the last few months. As more cases have come to light across the U.S., the pandemic has affected every American, causing widespread panic and uncertainty in this trying time.

It’s natural for humanity to feel vulnerable at a time like this, to be afraid of the unknown, to discuss our concerns, and look to others for support. Yet, if you’re currently struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), this pandemic brings to the surface a unique set of concerns of its own. An AUD is a chronic, relapsing disease that is diagnosed based on an individual meeting a certain set of criteria within a 12-month period.1

Regardless of the amount of alcohol a person consumes though, since alcohol consumption can weaken our immune systems over time, any person with problematic drinking behaviors can be amongst the most vulnerable populations for getting COVID-19. While flattening the curve is the nation’s priority right now, we understand that the unique needs of an individual battling alcoholism are equally as urgent—maybe even more so during this time of social distancing and home quarantines.

How COVID-19 Affects Those Struggling With Alcoholism

With the threat of COVID-19, a person with problematic drinking behaviors may face:

  • Anxiety.
  • Loneliness; this can be brought on by the need for social distancing and being instructed to remain in our homes.
  • An alcohol-related decrease in immune system health and the potential for increased susceptibility to certain infectious processes.
  • Drastically restricted access to alcohol, which may lead to symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

During this time, it’s important to acknowledge and understand these challenges that you may face in order to avoid using alcohol to self-medicate, potentially increasing certain COVID-19 related risks.

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Anxiety When Faced With the Unknown

It’s human nature to worry. And when faced with the unknown, even the most steadfast among us can go through periods of fear and doubt which can lead some of us to self-medicate in whatever way we feel works best. With the ongoing threat of COVID-19, it’s understandable why many may feel stressed and anxious for themselves or their loved ones.

If you’re also struggling with alcohol, you may experience anxiety as a side effect of the disorder, thus enhancing your feelings of unease during this confusing time. Furthermore, not fully understanding the potential of what this virus can do, receiving contradictory information on television and online, and the fear of losing your financial support can also be scary. However, reaching for a glass of alcohol can enhance your anxiety or make it more likely for problematic patterns of alcohol use to start or continue.

Studies show that there is a clear relationship between anxiety and AUDs. Both prolonged drinking and alcohol withdrawal are associated with an increased incidence of anxiety.2 One study estimated that 18.3% of people with general anxiety disorder self-medicated their condition with alcohol while 3.3% self-medicated with alcohol because of panic disorders.3 Additionally, nearly 13% of people with anxiety who self-medicated with alcohol developed an AUD, based on the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.4

To combat your feelings of anxiety, it may be helpful to stay off social media sites or limit the amount of time you spend watching the news each day. Being proactive about your mental health can help reduce triggers that may keep you in a constant state of worry. While the threat of COVID-19 is real, your mental health should be a main priority as well. Get outside, go for a walk or run, eat balanced meals, and make restful sleep a priority.

Isolationism From Your Support System

In an effort to flatten the curve and minimize the spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised Americans to abide by social distancing strategies, by staying home, keeping 6 ft. away from others in public, and at this time, congregating in groups no larger than 10 people.5

The challenge with this recommendation, though, is that if you are struggling with alcohol abuse or have an AUD, you may already be feeling alone. Studies have shown social withdrawal increases loneliness and depression, which themselves may be factors associated with substance abuse.6,7 In these cases, isolating from friends and family, while important to minimizing the spread of COVID-19, may have an unintended adverse effect as it may take away your ability to socialize with your support system.

For many struggling with alcoholism, creating and maintaining healthy social connections fuels their motivation to either stay sober or continue working toward sobriety. It’s no surprise then, that in a time like this, you may be feeling even more vulnerable and potentially triggered to pick up an alcoholic beverage.

Thankfully, technology has made it easier to connect with our loved ones whenever and wherever we are. Use this time as an opportunity to speak with friends, family members, therapists, or anyone who may help you get through these uneasy times. As we all continue to socially distance ourselves, some programs have also begun offering virtual 12-Step meetings should you wish to join one online.

A Weakened Immune System

The coronavirus family of viruses, and the human illnesses associated with them—for example, respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases (e.g., MERS, SARS)—are not new to us. 8 COVID-19, however, is a new virus whose symptoms may range from mild to severe, with the potential for more serious (and in some cases, lethal) illness in people over 65+ as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions and/or weakened immune systems.8 Currently around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and needs immediate medical attention.8

Over the years, studies have shown a clear association between excessive alcohol consumption and a weakened immune system, specifically when it comes to a person’s susceptibility to pneumonia.9 Because of this, those diagnosed with AUD may be among a particularly vulnerable population. Yet, even if you think you may have your drinking under control, research shows that even non-chronic alcohol drinkers can still face negative health consequences. In fact, acute binge drinking also compromises the immune system.9

Alcohol abuse can also lead to various issues with your cardiopulmonary system (i.e., heart and lungs). In times like these, our bodies need to function at their highest levels in order to fight off the symptoms of this virus and decrease the potential harm of COVID-19. But care must be taken, even in just getting sober. Although you may be tempted to quit alcohol use altogether until a vaccine for the coronavirus arrives, if you’ve developed a physical dependence on it, you may face serious or life-threatening symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

In order to keep individuals as comfortable and as safe as possible, a medical detox is an essential first step in combating alcoholism. Although alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing disease, with professional treatment and ongoing recovery efforts, this disease may be effectively managed.10 Treatment for problematic alcohol consumption can slow down, stop, or altogether reverse many otherwise progressive, drinking-related health issues.

How to Get Help For Alcoholism is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC), a nationwide provider of treatment facilities who are here and ready to help you work toward recovery today. AAC understands the fear and social anxiety associated with COVID-19 and we recognize our responsibility to support ongoing efforts to reduce these challenges.

We are monitoring and updating our procedures and policies as needed and in line with the guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO), CDC, and federal and state authorities. Changes and updates for COVID-19 evolve rapidly, which leads to rapid changes in policies, protocols, and recommendations. We are committed to supporting our patients and their families who struggle with and are impacted by alcohol use disorder.

For further information on treatment during the pandemic, we’ve put together a guide that answers some of our most frequently asked questions:

info icon Treatment during COVID-19: What You Need to Know

We offer a safe treatment environment for those seeking freedom from addiction and a community of like-minded and caring individuals to oversee your entire recovery journey. If you’re unable to leave your home, we have also begun hosting free, virtual 12-Step meetings for those impacted by COVID-19.

If you’re ready to seek professional help, our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to discuss your treatment options at 1-888-685-5770 or get a text . You don’t need to go through this alone, we’re here for you every step of the way.

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[1]. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing; 490-491.

[2]. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005). Substance Abuse Treatment for Persons With Co-Occurring Disorders. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 42.

[3]. Robinson, J., Sareen, J., Cox, B., & Bolton, J. (2009). Self-Medication of Anxiety Disorders with Alcohol and Drugs: Results from a Nationally Representative SampleJournal of Anxiety Disorders, 23 (1), 38–45. 

[4]. Robinson, J., Sareen, J., Cox, B., & Bolton, J. (2011). Role of Self-medication in the Development of Comorbid Anxiety and Substance Use Disorders: A Longitudinal InvestigationArchives of General Psychiatry, 68(8), 800–807.

[5]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

[6]. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD. (2017). The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors. Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 127–130.

[7]. Hosseinbor, M., Yassini Ardekani, S. M., Bakhshani, S., & Bakhshani, S. (2014). Emotional and social loneliness in individuals with and without substance dependence disorder. International journal of high risk behaviors & addiction3(3), e22688.

[8]. World Health Organization. (2020). Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19).

[9]. Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune SystemAlcohol Research : Current Reviews37(2), 153–155.

[10]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.