How COVID-19 has affected binge drinking rates
Americans are famously busy people. We are known the world over to have a high opinion of the hustle, the rise-and-grind attitude, to the point where most of our schedules are full to bursting. But now that the novel coronavirus is spreading the disease COVID-19 all over the world, many people are home in quarantine with something they aren’t used to: time.
To our credit, some people are using this time to rest and decompress. Some are taking on home improvement projects, while others are just waiting until they can safely go out and see their friends again. If you’ve spent any time on social media during the past few months, you know that alcohol has become a big part of how some people are dealing with all this extra time.
Casual scrolling reveals Facebook posts about “quarantinis,” cocktails with a COVID-19 theme, and photos displaying lockdown kits featuring toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a bottle of Jack Daniels. The joke is a common one that has been made about mundane small towns and seasons of limited activity long before COVID-19: there’s nothing to do but drink.
But it’s not a joke.
Alcohol sales have increased, and people who already have alcohol use disorder might be at risk in the face of isolation and stress. People who don’t have diagnosed substance use issues may be flirting with the disorder in quarantine. The real quarantini is one part alcohol, one part stress, and one part isolation, and it makes for a dangerous cocktail.
But are people really drinking more? How is COVID-19 affected by alcohol? Learn more about alcohol use during this pandemic and how you can drink responsibly and stay safe.
Alcohol sales have increased
The coronavirus has caused some industries to take a hit while others are booming. While travel and leisure companies are struggling to make it through each passing month, other industries are experiencing shortages. Toiletries and meat sales have exceeded supply, and alcohol sales are right behind them. In the third week of March, alcohol sales were up 55 percent as compared to a year ago.
Beer sales have been on a decline in America in favor of lower-calorie options. However, CNN reported that sales of larger cases of beer (of 24 or 30) have increased by 90 percent compared to last year. Hard seltzer drinks like White Claw® have seen the sharpest increase. Sales of these already popular canned beverages increased 106 percent.
Some of these sales might be the result of people taking their usual habits into their homes. People who would normally eat out and go to bars or clubs have started cooking at home and buying drinks from liquor stores instead of restaurants. However, quarantine has many people adopting drinking habits that are different from their regular, pre-quarantine routine.
Is my quarantine drinking normal?
A study in the United Kingdom found that people changed their drinking habits in quarantine, and for some, increased alcohol sales weren’t just indicative of regular drinking being done in the home rather than at bars and restaurants. The survey polled 2,000 people. About 300 respondents said they drank during lockdown without having had alcohol before. However, 6 percent stopped drinking entirely during the lockdown. But 21 percent said they started drinking more frequently.
Problematic drinking can be defined in a number of ways. One of the signs of a substance use disorder is binge drinking, which is drinking to the point of bringing your blood-alcohol level to 0.08 g/dl or higher. This usually takes four drinks for women and five drinks for men within two hours, but it depends on factors like your relative size.
There is a set of 11 criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). If some of these apply to you, you may have a mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder. Among these signs is trying and failing to cut back or stop drinking, strong cravings to drink, neglecting other duties because of drinking, or drinking despite consequences.
Some behaviors aren’t on the list, but they can point to growing problems with alcohol. Drinking to cope with problems, drinking more and more often, and drinking at odd times are red flags.
Excessive drinking weakens the immune system
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers found and announced that alcohol could kill the virus. It’s true that alcohol can destroy the virus on surfaces, which is why alcohol-based hand sanitizers and cleaners have been recommended. But we don’t have any evidence that drinking alcohol (ethanol) does anything to help you fight off the virus in your system.
In fact, excessive drinking can weaken your immune system. You’re better off maintaining your health and ability to fight off infection and disease as much as possible.
Isolation and mental health
Isolation is a thorn to mental health, and it can worsen existing issues. Separating from your friends and family is difficult, and it’s a part of quarantine for many unless you take steps to reach out to people through other forms of communication. Social isolation has been shown to cause issues like depression for some. To cope, some might turn to alcohol or other substances. However, alcohol can lead to worse mental health issues and may exacerbate depression. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of suicide cases involve alcohol intoxication.
Avoiding a relapse during quarantine
If you have alcohol use disorder, you know that recovery is a lifelong process, and some situations can put your sobriety at risk.
Severe substance use problems affect the brain and may alter the way you respond to stress and adversity. Addiction affects the reward center of the brain, which is designed to help identify positive feelings and the tasks that cause them. Addiction tricks the reward center into treating drug or alcohol use as a positive life-sustaining activity.
People who go through treatment and recovery learn to manage stress in other ways. But in high-risk situations, their brain may still default back to craving alcohol to soothe away stress and negativity.
COVID-19 has brought stress and negativity to a lot of people. Family members might get sick, many people have lost their jobs, and almost every aspect of life has changed in response to the virus. On top of that, many people are isolated, which can worsen mental health issues.
However, there are ways to safeguard your sobriety, even in quarantine. Some helpful tips come from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that put out an article about avoiding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relapse. Though PTSD and alcoholism are very different disorders, the principle of managing stress and avoiding relapse is the same.
They suggest increasing a sense of safety by following the recommendations of healthcare professionals. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after you go out, come in contact with another person, and when you sneeze or cough. Wear a mask in public and avoid close contact with other people.
The VA also recommends that we stay connected. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Human connection is a key component of maintaining your sobriety. Accountability and support are vital if you have alcohol use disorder, and even if you don’t.