Heavy Drinking Linked to Higher Risk of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening lung condition that can cause respiratory failure. Critically ill hospital patients who have a history of chronic alcohol abuse have an increased risk for ARDS. The condition occurs when fluid builds up in the lungs’ air sacs (called alveoli), which impedes oxygen supply to the body. A critical illness or traumatic injury can put patients at risk for ARDS, which often occurs during a hospitalization.

Severe pneumonia, sepsis (a body-wide infection), and aspiration pneumonia (when food, liquids, saliva, or vomit enter the airway) are common conditions that can lead to ARDS. A new meta-analysis found that ARDS risk nearly doubles in people who drink heavily (more than 15 drinks a week) or binge drink (more than five drinks on a single occasion) compared with moderate drinkers or nondrinkers. Experts don’t fully understand the reasons for the higher risk, although past studies have shown that alcohol use has been associated with increased alveolar fluid. After analyzing 13 studies, U.K. researchers observed a common thread among many patients with ARDS: They were heavy or binge drinkers. The study, which was published recently in Chest, concluded that patients admitted to the hospital should be screened for a history of alcohol abuse to help prevent ARDS.

WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW: ARDS affects approximately 200,000 patients a year in the United States. Nearly 75,000-more than one-third-of them die from ARDS each year. Survivors often end up with a generally decreased quality of life due to lung damage, cognitive impairment, and other physical and mental problems. Treating ARDS often requires breathing support from a mechanical ventilator, or breathing tube, in an intensive care unit.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: Keep your drinking in check to decrease your chances of ARDS and other alcohol-related conditions. The CDC recommends no more than two drinks a day for men (one a day for men over 65) and one drink a day for women. If you’re with a critically ill person who’s being admitted to the hospital, let the doctors know if the patient is a heavy user of alcohol so they can be aware of-and perhaps head off-any potential complications.