Alcohol, Supplemental Oxygen and the Holidays

There’s nothing like celebrating the holidays with a touch of rum eggnog or some Bailey’s Irish Cream. For most people, drinking alcoholic beverages inspires camaraderie, laughter and a sense of well-being. But alcohol can be rather two-faced; drinking modest amounts is associated with a number of health benefits while drinking too much can prove deadly. What about alcohol and supplemental oxygen? Is it safe to partake in holiday spirits while using oxygen?

Alcohol and Oxygen: A Recipe for Disaster

Oxygen safety is one of the most important aspects of oxygen therapy. Drinking alcohol in the presence of supplemental oxygen can be extremely dangerous. Let’s explore this further to find out why.

Have you ever been to a restaurant that employed the flambeau technique at your tableside? What do you think the waiter used to ignite the food? Alcohol. The fact that alcohol, in and of itself, is ignitable is only part of the problem. Oxygen supports combustion, which means that materials – including alcohol – will burn more readily in its presence. The National Institute of Health recommends that you keep all liquids that may catch fire away from your oxygen. This includes cleaning products that contain oil, grease, alcohol, or other liquids that can burn.1

Alcohol and Medication

If you’re thinking about indulging in a bit of the bubbly this holiday season, remember mixing alcohol with pain pills or pills that may relax you, makes the effects of the medication that much stronger. It can even slow your breathing to the point of stopping it. WebMD recommends that you not drink alcohol or take pills that may relax you while using oxygen.2

In contrast, alcohol can interfere with the action of some medication – particularly steroids and antibiotics – making them less effective.

Alcohol and Lung Function

Although research related to COPD and alcohol is conflicting, there is some evidence to support that drinking heavy amounts of alcohol over time contributes to a progressive decline of the following lung function measurements:3

  • Forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1).
  • Total lung capacity (TLC).
  • Residual volume.
  • Diffusing capacity of the lungs.

Additionally, excessive alcohol consumption in COPD has been linked to:3

  • Damage of the cilia, tiny hairs lining the airways that help clear mucus from the lungs.
  • An increase in COPD symptoms.
  • An increased risk of death from COPD.

Alcohol and COPD: A No-Win Situation?

Drinking to excess is harmful for anyone; it increases the risk of liver disease, cancer and high blood pressure. It can affect balance, increasing the risk for falls and impair the ability to drive, increasing the risk of motor vehicle accidents.4

Adding alcohol to COPD spells double trouble. Alcohol slows the rate of breathing and makes it more difficult to cough up mucus. It fills you up with empty calories, taking a back-seat to healthy nutrition. It not only potentiates the effects of some medications, but interacts with others making them less effective.4 Alcohol, in excess, may even worsen lung function.

Think Before You Drink

Everyone is different. One or two drinks may be safe for one person, but be harmful to the next. Before you choose to drink alcohol, discuss it with your doctor to identify the safest amount based on your individual health care needs. If your doctor determines that no safe amount exists for you, there’s always apple cider!

 

Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN

 

1 National Institute of Health. Oxygen Safety. Updated Oct. 31, 2013.
2 WebMD. Oxygen Therapy: Using Oxygen at Home. Accessed Dec. 1, 2013.
3 Sisson, Joseph H., M.D. Alcohol and Airways Function in Health and Disease. Alcohol. 2007 August;41(5):293-307. Published online 2007 August 30. doi:  10.1016/j.alcohol.2007.06.003
4 University of Rochester Medical Center. If I Have COPD, Can I Drink? Updated Dec. 12, 2013.

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