Last Updated on October 10, 2021
Drinking more due to COVID-19? You’re not alone. According a late 2020 study, alcohol use in the US increased more than 14 percent vs before the pandemic1. In another study, 60 percent of people reported drinking more since the beginning of COVID2. And according to Nielsen, online alcohol sales more than doubled during the first wave of lockdowns in 20203.
In fact, Ria Health has seen a surge this past year in people seeking information on alcohol treatment.
“There has been a 10 times growth in people visiting Ria’s website since the pandemic started,” shared Tom Nix, Ria Health’s CEO. “We’ve also found that visitors to the website are two and a half times more likely to express concerns around their alcohol use—and the average number of people joining Ria Health’s program has grown five times since before the pandemic started.”
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 stress relief.
Of course, 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 many people are drinking more during COVID, and how to know when it’s becoming a problem.
Why Are People Drinking More in Quarantine?
There are several reasons for increased quarantine drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, including stress, isolation, and boredom.
Nobody can deny that life during the COVID era has been especially stressful. Uncertainty about the future, financial instability, being cut off from family and friends, limited access to some healthy coping mechanisms, and social upheaval have left a lot on American’s plates, emotionally speaking. Drinking is a common way to cope with negative emotions, and is often socially condoned as a way to unwind.
Data supports stress as a primary reason for quarantine drinking. In a late 2020 survey, people who reported high levels of stress during COVID also reported consuming more alcohol4.
There’s also simple boredom. Being stuck inside during several weeks of lockdown might motivate someone to order a bunch of beer or liquor online, just to have something to do.
Interestingly, BACtrack data from March and April 2020 suggests California residents decreased their weekend drinking by 51 percent, while drinking 47 percent more during the week5. With bars closed, and most people’s Friday or Saturday night plans cancelled, this makes sense. And with quarantine life becoming repetitive, it’s not surprising that Tuesday or Wednesday would take up the slack.
But while the occasional “quarantini” might cheer you up, drinking too much or too often has well-known downsides. Using alcohol to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression often makes these problems worse in the long run, and can even lead to alcohol dependence. As challenging as it can be, finding alternative forms of self care during social distancing is crucial for getting through the COVID era healthy, especially if you have any history of substance abuse.
Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Coronavirus?
You may have heard a rumor that drinking alcohol can kill coronavirus, or prevent you from getting COVID-19. However, this is NOT TRUE. While high concentrations of alcohol can kill coronavirus on surfaces, drinking alcohol cannot help you fight COVID-19, and may actually weaken your immune system. Once alcohol enters your body, even the strongest liquors become too diluted to kill viruses or bacteria6.
Why Drinking Alcohol Doesn’t Kill COVID-19
To begin with, the concentration of alcohol needed to kill COVID on surfaces and skin is 60 to 95 percent. A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) anywhere near this antiseptic level would give you fatal alcohol poisoning. For comparison, the average BAC after one standard drink is only 0.01 to 0.03 percent!
In addition, one of the main ways 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.
To make matters worse, excessive drinking may actually make you more vulnerable to 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 coronavirus complications, including Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)7.
So, can drinking alcohol kill the coronavirus? The answer is, absolutely not. While drinking more to prevent COVID-19 may have a certain appeal, it’s likely to make things worse.
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 COVID, or quarantine alcoholism?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) divides drinking into several categories, ranging from abstinence (no drinking) to alcohol use disorder8. 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 spirits9. 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.