Drinking more due to COVID-19? You’re not alone. According to the University of Southern California, alcohol sales rose by 55 percent in late March, compared with the same period in 2019. And it’s quite possible that they have continued to rise since then.
There are many reasons why you might be drinking more alcohol in quarantine. Maybe you’ve heard rumors that alcohol can kill the coronavirus and thought, “Why not?” Or, maybe you’ve been bored, lonely, or depressed while social distancing from family and friends, and seeking relief from stress.
Having a “quarantini” now and then, or even the occasional “virtual cocktail party,” may not be such a big deal. But how much drinking is too much during the COVID-19 pandemic? Below, we’ll explore why people may be drinking more during COVID, and how to know when it’s becoming a problem.
Why Am I Drinking More in Quarantine?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason people may be drinking more during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we can make some good educated guesses.
For starters, if you’re a social person you’ve probably experienced a growing sense of frustration as your favorite restaurants, stores, and bars remain closed indefinitely. That boredom might have you reaching for a bottle of wine when you’re home alone, wondering if getting a little tipsy might liven things up again.
The numbers support this trend. Data shows that the average blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level among Americans decreased by 51 percent on weekends during quarantine—the time when we’re most often out with friends. But it also increased by 47 percent on weekdays.
If we’re going out to fewer bars and restaurants, it makes sense that we’d be drinking less on weekends. And since most people are experiencing increased loneliness and boredom in their daily lives, weeknight drinking may seem more appealing than before. Alcohol may seem like a convenient way to make life feel less repetitive and dull during lockdown.
Then, there’s just plain-old life stress. Consider the fact that kids are no longer in school, for example. Many parents are now juggling homeschooling and daycare while adjusting to full-time work from home. It’s no wonder people are increasingly turning to alcohol to take the edge off a long day.
But while drinking alcohol can feel like a good short-term solution, it’s not a healthy coping mechanism in the long-run. In fact, drinking to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression can often make each of these mental health problems worse, leading to a cycle of self-medication. Eventually, you may even find yourself addicted to alcohol.
Finding alternative forms of self care during social distancing can be crucial for avoiding alcohol dependence, especially if you have any history of substance abuse.
Does Drinking Alcohol Kill the Coronavirus?
You may have heard a rumor that drinking alcohol can prevent you from contracting COVID-19. However, this is NOT TRUE. In fact, drinking too much may actually weaken your immune system.
It is true that certain hand sanitizers containing 60 to 95 percent ethyl alcohol help kill the virus on surfaces. However, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) anywhere near this antiseptic level would be fatal. The average BAC after one standard drink is only 0.01 to 0.03 percent!
In addition, one of the main ways scientists believe COVID-19 spreads is via respiratory droplets inhaled from the air. Drinking alcohol does not kill the virus in the air, or disinfect the nose or throat. So you can still get COVID-19 this way no matter how much alcohol you drink.
Meanwhile, misusing alcohol may actually put you at higher risk from COVID-19. If alcohol is in your bloodstream at the time you’re exposed to pathogens, it can impair your body’s immune response. And people who misuse alcohol are significantly more likely to develop potentially fatal complications from COVID, including Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), requiring hospitalization.
In summary, drinking alcohol does not protect against the coronavirus, and may actually put you in greater danger. While drinking more to prevent COVID-19 may have a certain appeal, it’s best to limit your alcohol use.
When Quarantine Drinking Becomes Too Much
So, how much drinking is too much in quarantine? At what point does alcohol use stop being safe, and become a risk factor for developing the coronavirus?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) divides drinking into several categories, ranging from abstinence (no drinking) to alcohol use disorder. You don’t need to abstain from alcohol completely to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. But you should make sure you do not exceed what is considered a moderate level of drinking.
The NIAAA defines moderate drinking as no more than one standard drink per day for women and up to two standard drinks per day for men. A standard drink consists of 12 ounces of beer, 8-9 ounces of malt liquor, a 5 ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. Drinking at this level does little to raise your risk of developing alcohol use disorder or contracting COVID-19.
Drinking becomes high-risk for women at more than four drinks per day, or eight or more drinks per week. For men, the number is more than five drinks per day, or 15 or more drinks per week. This includes binge drinking—defined as consuming four or more drinks within a two hour period for women, or five or more drinks within a two hour period for men.
Engaging in risky drinking behaviors—during the coronavirus pandemic or at any other time—makes you more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. And aside from COVID-19, there are a number of serious chronic diseases linked to alcohol, including cancer, diabetes, liver disease, and pancreatitis.
In other words, despite the boredom and stress of quarantine, it’s best to avoid joining too many “zoom happy hours.”
Cutting Back on Alcohol During COVID-19
Alcohol misuse may put you at higher risk for infection or addiction during the current pandemic. And because alcohol can impair your judgement, it may also increase the likelihood you’ll take risks that put others in harm’s way.
The safest option—for both your health and that of others around you—is to avoid excessive alcohol use. If you do choose to drink alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization recommends keeping your intake to a minimum, and avoiding intoxication to protect your immune health.
If you’re struggling to control your alcohol use under quarantine, you can now get help from home. Telemedicine programs like Ria Health give you access to coaching, medications, digital tools, and expert medical support—100 percent from your smartphone. The program is flexible to your unique needs, and you don’t need to identify as an alcoholic to join.