What do Addiction, COVID-19 and Vaccines have in Common?Grif Palmer
Unwinding with a glass of wine or a “quarantini” might seem like a good way to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for some people, too much alcohol is making this ongoing health crisis worse. Nielsen reports alcohol sales in stores were up 54% earlier this year compared to that time last year, while online sales were up nearly 500% in late April.
“There are data to indicate people are drinking more than usual,” said Dr. Mariann Piano, a substance abuse researcher. “And there’s no question that drinking too much every day leads to an increase in health risks.” There is also evidence from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) that prescription drug abuse, depression and suicide rates have increased substantially.
Alcohol consumption weakens the immune system and can increase the susceptibility to certain infectious diseases. For individuals who are dependent on alcohol, restricted access could lead to symptoms of withdraw. Alcohol withdraw can be fatal if not managed properly.
Opioids and Methamphetamines
When opioids are taken at high doses, they act on the brainstem to slow breathing, which leads to decreased oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia). This puts opioid users at risk of an overdose, and is why opioids are particularly dangerous and often fatal. Methamphetamine use is particularly dangerous because it constricts the blood vessels, which can lead to pulmonary damage and hypertension.
Smoking or snorting cocaine causes changes in the brain that results in constriction within the vascular system (arteries, veins, capillaries), and can lead to severe damage of the lung and respiratory system. Smoking cocaine can lead to many complications to the lungs such as swelling, hemorrhages, pulmonary edema, bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema.
Smoking and Vaping
When you smoke or vape either tobacco or marijuana, you are at risk for health consequences such as cancer and lung damage. In addition to smoking, emerging evidence suggests that vaping causes damage to lung cells and inflammation to lung tissue. This reduces the ability for the lungs to respond to infection. Because COVID-19 attacks the lungs, smoking and vaping may pose serious risks to those who contract COVID-19.
Addiction, Anxiety and Stress
People with addiction also have depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. During COVID-19, the constant flow of stressful news may lead to increased feelings of worry, anxiety, and stress. Although turning to alcohol and/or drugs may temporarily help you feel better, they cause changes in your brain that will make you feel worse.
“People who are alcohol-dependent have compromised immune systems, reducing the body’s ability to fight off infectious diseases such as COVID-19. And the more you drink, the higher your risk. Humans have long turned to alcohol to try to relieve everyday stress, and the pandemic has pushed anxiety levels up for many people”, said Dr. Jason Powers, MD, MAPP who specializes in addiction medicine and is the creator of the Positive Recovery curriculum.
“There are all these uncertainties: ‘Will I still have a job? When will my kids go back to school? When can I see my family again and hug them?’” Powers said. “A lot of my patients talk about this idea that there’s a hamster wheel constantly going in their head and that alcohol quiets down the hamster wheel.”
Anxiety isn’t the only thing fueling pandemic drinking and other harmful behaviors. As people work from home and self-isolate, they experience loneliness and boredom – two more potential triggers for excessive alcohol and drug use, he said. There are lots of alcohol-free strategies for coping with pandemic stress, experts say. Staying physically active, getting plenty of sleep and eating healthy foods are three of the most important tactics. Yoga, meditation and deep breathing techniques can also help. Talking to friends by phone or video chat can alleviate loneliness.
During these uncertain times, those who misuse or abuse alcohol and/or other drugs, are particularly vulnerable. The stress from social isolation and other COVID-19 related life changes can lead to or worsen substance use and misuse. There are also health risks resulting from chronic alcohol/drug use as it weakens the immune system and puts stress on the body’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Addiction thrives on secrecy and loves to catch people off-guard. It can progress quickly, especially during COVID-19 social isolation. If you’re dealing with strong cravings or relapse, contact help immediately and, if possible, include your family or close friend. Ask about medication to treat your symptoms, a plan for refills, and also ask about options such as residential or emergency services, as well as the risks of going to the local emergency department. Many providers are offering virtual visits via web chat or phone.
3 Things to Remember
- COVID-19 related social isolation and stress can increase susceptibility to substance misuse, addiction, and relapse.
- Substance use can lead to immune system, respiratory, and pulmonary changes and may increase susceptibility to COVID-19 as well as complications.
- Like vaccines which are being worked on and will be imperfect there are a number of resources available to help assist individuals and loved ones with addiction and alcoholism. Reach out and ask for help.
If you our someone you know needs help, visit www.positiverecovery.com or call 877-476-2743 to schedule a free assessment. Get help today. Tomorrow may be too late.
If you find yourself drinking excessively on a regular basis, seek prompt professional help in person or via phone or video chat. In addition, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline is available at 800-985-5990. For those in recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous provides a listing of online meetings at aa-intergroup.org.
*Editor’s note: Because of the rapidly evolving events surrounding the coronavirus, the facts and advice presented in this story may have changed since publication. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Houston health officials for the most recent guidance.
by Grif Palmer