COPD and alcohol: Links and risks

People who drink often smoke, which can make it challenging to distinguish a relationship between drinking alcohol and developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

However, the currently established links between COPD and alcohol use are significant enough that they may discourage people at risk of COPD from drinking.

No research has proved that drinking alcohol causes COPD, but some evidence suggests that drinking has specific adverse effects on people with the condition.

Alcohol and smoking as risk factors

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for COPD. According to the American Lung Association, 85–90 percent of COPD cases result from smoking, either directly or secondhand.

The link between smoking and drinking

Behavioral patterns link drinking alcohol with smoking.

A 2015 study published in BMJ Open identifies, more specifically, a relationship between heavy drinking and persistent smoking or failing to quit smoking.

Of course, not everyone who drinks also smokes. However, anyone who is quitting smoking to reduce their risk of COPD may wish to avoid drinking.

People likely to smoke when they drink may also wish to avoid alcohol.

Anything that irritates and damages lung tissue may increase a person’s risk of developing COPD. If possible, it is essential to limit exposure to irritants.

Regular heavy drinking seems to increase the risk of damage to the lung’s tissues. It may indirectly lead to COPD or make existing symptoms worse.

Alcohol can irritate the lungs and increase the risk of COPD by:

  • inhibiting cells in the lung that are responsible for killing bacteria
  • preventing the immune system from protecting the body from infections, including pneumonia
  • preventing the lungs from using mucus to trap toxins and carry them out of the body
  • increasing the buildup of carbon dioxide by reducing the breathing rate, which is also characteristic of COPD

Smoking is the most significant risk factor for COPD.

People who encounter high levels of environmental pollution are also at risk for lung damage that can cause the disease. This group includes people who regularly inhale chemicals, or 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.

For a person with COPD, it is important to weigh these risk factors when deciding whether to 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. A person who drinks in this way may be more likely to smoke, or they may encounter more secondhand smoke.

If a person has COPD or risk factors for the disease, they should consider staying away from alcohol. It may be especially beneficial to avoid heavy drinking. Occasional light drinking, such as having a glass of wine with a meal, may not be as harmful.

People who smoke heavily when they drink should also consider refraining from drinking.

Anyone who is having trouble avoiding alcohol or tobacco should speak with a doctor, who can recommend treatment plans, therapy, and medications that can help.

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