Alcohol myths kill

Last week at least 44 people have died in Iran due to alcohol poisoning as they believed myths about alcohol’s properties to kill the coronavirus. In an attempt to protect themselves from COVID-19, they consumed large amounts of home-made liquor. According to USA Today, many more people are hospitalized and in treatment in emergency rooms.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the deadliest outside of China, where the disease originated. The country is scrambling in their effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 and limit the death toll. The outbreak has reportedly hit all 31 provinces, killing 291 people and infecting more than 8,000 people.

As COVID-19 spreads around the world and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), misinformation, myths and rumours have contributed their share to the increasing burden.

As I’m writing this, the WHO reports that 148 countries are now affected with more than 168,000 people infected worldwide. Sadly, more than 6,600 people have died due to COVID-19. China, Italy and Iran are currently the countries with the highest numbers of coronavirus infections.

As the cases of alcohol poisoning deaths due to myths about a coronavirus cure illustrate, reliable and accurate information is important for people and their families and for public health. In fact, the WHO is not “just” fighting the virus itself, they have also taken up the battle against a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information (some accurate and some not) that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.

Don’t ingest alcohol, but use it for hygiene

As misleading and even harmful information is spreading rapidly on social media, WHO has launched collaborations with Facebook, Twitter, Tencent, Pinterest and TikTok to curb the spread of fake news.

And WHO is trying to get ahead of misleading information by sharing important guidance and advisory. Among other topics, they are addressing the issue of harmful coping mechanisms in the stressful and fearful time of the outbreak and response, especially for health workers, and the broader public.

In fact, WHO has an entire page called “myth busters” to debunk the biggest misconceptions about coronavirus “prevention remedies”.

They write for instance:

Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body. Spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e. eyes, mouth).

Be aware that both alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces, but they need to be used under appropriate recommendations.”

It is clear that alcohol ingested by humans is (very) harmful, not helpful. The ONLY role alcohol should play is to help ensure hygien. Regularly and thoroughly cleaning our hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or washing them with soap and water is the most important protection measure. Cleaning surfaces that are frequently used is also important and alcohol-based substances are helpful in this regard, too. All the other key protective measures everyone must take are summarized in this YouTube video.

Alcohol weakens the immune system

Busting the myth that alcohol ingestion would help prevent infection with the coronavirus and debunking the misconception that alcohol consumption might be a useful coping mechanism considering the stress and anxiety brought about by everything that is unfolding now due to the pandemic is one thing.

There is, however, one more topic that should receive recognition in the times of this pandemic: alcohol weakens the immune system.

This matters for everyone who belongs to a high-risk group. But it also matters for everyone else who wants to make sure – and rightly so – to stay as healthy as possible.

Alcohol weakens the immune system.

Scientists have known for a long time that alcohol consumption is associated with negative health effects related to the immune system. Some of the connections that matter especially in the context of the coronavirus pandemic are:

  • Susceptibility to pneumonia,
  • Greater likelihood of acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), and
  • Slower and less complete recovery from infections due to alcohol use.

Importantly, alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic to have negative health consequences for the immune system.

Alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex ways and thus impairs the body’s ability to defend against infection. Alcohol’s combined effects on both innate and adaptive immunity significantly weaken the ability of the body to defend against infections and other health problems.

Scientists have found that:

… alcohol alters the numbers and relative abundances of microbes in the gut microbiome, an extensive community of microorganisms in the intestine that aid in normal gut function.

These organisms affect the maturation and function of the immune system.”

In addition to pneumonia, alcohol consumption is linked to pulmonary diseases, including tuberculosis, and others. Alcohol disrupts ciliary function in the upper airways, impairs the function of immune cells, and weakens the barrier function of the epithelia in the lower airways. Often, the alcohol-provoked lung damage goes undetected until a second insult, such as a respiratory infection, leads to more severe lung diseases than those seen in alcohol abstainers.

In 2008, a WHO-led expert group meeting found after extensive review of latest evidence that there is conclusive evidence of a causal link between heavy alcohol use patterns and/or alcohol use disorders (AUD) and the incidence of active tuberculosis (TB), and worsening the course of TB.

TB is a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects your lungs. WHO says that ca. a third of the world’s population has latent TB, which means people have been infected by TB bacteria but are not (yet) ill. Alcohol is a major risk factor and cause for this infectious lung disease, according to the WHO Global Alcohol Status Report 2018.

In general, alcohol consumption is not healthy or safe.

But in times of a pandemic, the understanding of alcohol’s adverse effects on the human immune system and thus on our bodies’ capacity to defend against infections and our overall ability to stay healthy is important. It’s a truth that could be shared on social media – after you’ve wiped down your device and washed your hands properly.

According to scientific evidence, the following advice matters for lifestyle choices that help strengthen immune system defence:

  1. Quit smoking.
  2. Avoid alcohol use.
  3. Avoid stress.
  4. Ensure and maintain a healthy lifestyle, including healthy food, exercise, proper sleep and social contact (possible even in times of social distancing).

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