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Does drinking alcohol make a cold worse?

Having a cold is unpleasant enough without worrying if a glass of wine or beer might prolong your suffering. Many people believe that drinking alcohol can worsen cold symptoms. But is this really true? Here’s a look at what science has to say about alcohol and the common cold.

Does alcohol suppress the immune system?

To understand if alcohol makes a cold worse, it helps to know how alcohol affects the immune system. When you have a cold, your immune system is hard at work trying to fight off the virus. Anything that suppresses normal immune function could potentially worsen symptoms and duration.

Moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t appear to significantly impact immune function in healthy people. But heavy, chronic drinking may impair certain parts of the immune system:

  • Damage to the cells lining the upper respiratory tract can make you more prone to infections.
  • Inhibition of immune cells can interfere with your body’s ability to fight viruses.
  • Inflammation triggered by drinking can increase cold symptoms like sore throat, nasal congestion, and cough.

So while an occasional drink when you have a cold is unlikely to cause harm, heavy drinking could potentially dampen your immune response and lead to more severe symptoms.

Can alcohol dehydrate you and worsen symptoms?

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it promotes water loss through increased urination. Dehydration is already a concern when you have a cold, since fever, sweating, and runny nose can deplete fluid levels. Alcohol could potentially worsen dehydration and associated symptoms like headache, fatigue, and stuffy nose.

Research suggests even a single drinking episode can lead to some loss of fluids. And the more you drink, the greater the diuretic effect. However, the extent of dehydration depends on factors like:

  • Your starting hydration level – If well-hydrated, you can afford more fluid loss
  • Type of beverage – Beer and sweet cocktails have a greater diuretic effect than wine or spirits
  • Rate of consumption – Drinking faster increases urine output

As long as you pace yourself when drinking and properly rehydrate, mild to moderate alcohol intake is unlikely to cause problematic dehydration for most people.

Can alcohol help you sleep better when you’re sick?

Many over-the-counter cold medications contain ingredients like dextromethorphan and pseudoephedrine that can disrupt sleep. Alcohol, on the other hand, is known for its sedative effects. Some people intentionally drink alcohol when they’re sick in hopes it will help them rest.

In reality, alcohol can negatively impact sleep quality:

  • It may help you fall asleep faster initially but leads to more nighttime awakenings.
  • It reduces time spent in deep, restorative stages of sleep.
  • It worsens breathing problems associated with nasal congestion.
  • It can cause dehydration that further impairs sleep.

The best approach for supporting sleep when you have a cold is to rely on proper rest and hydration rather than alcohol.

Does alcohol impair your body’s ability to heal itself?

Rest and recovery are important when you’re sick. This gives your immune system the chance to gain ground against the invading virus. Some raise concerns that alcohol could hinder your ability to heal for a few reasons:

  • It can reduce the body’s supply of key nutrients needed for proper immune function and tissue repair.
  • It triggers inflammation that adds additional stress to an already overworked immune system.
  • It can impair sleep cycles that allow your body to heal and regenerate.

However, an occasional drink while you have a cold is unlikely to cause lasting damage. The bigger concern is developing unhealthy drinking habits that could hinder your long-term health.

Can alcohol help relieve cold symptoms or make you feel better?

Drinking alcohol may seem like a convenient way to self-medicate cold misery. Alcohol can temporarily help relieve symptoms like sore throat and nasal congestion by dilating blood vessels. But any symptom relief is short-lived.

Relying on alcohol can actually worsen some cold symptoms like fatigue, body aches, and dehydration. And impaired immunity may prolong how long you stay sick. Any immediate, mild relief is outweighed by the potential negative consequences.

How does alcohol interact with cold medications?

Combining alcohol with common over-the-counter cold and flu medications is not recommended. Possible negative interactions include:

Medication Potential Interaction with Alcohol
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Increased risk of liver damage
Antihistamines Increased drowsiness and impaired coordination
Dextromethorphan (cough suppressant) Excessive sedation and drowsiness
Nasal decongestants Increased heart rate and blood pressure

Avoid drinking any amount of alcohol while taking cold medications unless your doctor says it’s okay. Even one or two drinks can amplify side effects.

Does the type of alcoholic drink impact cold symptoms?

Not all alcoholic beverages are created equal when you have a cold. Some types may be worse for symptoms than others:

  • Beer & cocktails – Higher carbohydrate and sugar content can worsen dehydration and inflammation.
  • Wine – The histamines in wine may compound stuffy, itchy cold symptoms.
  • Liquor – High alcohol content further stresses your immune system.

In general, beer, wine, and sweet cocktails with mixer beverages have the greatest potential to worsen cold symptoms due to their diuretic effects and high sugar content. Clear liquors like vodka and gin may be less problematic in moderation.

Should you avoid alcohol completely when sick?

Drinking any amount of alcohol could potentially worsen cold symptoms through dehydration, impaired immunity, or interactions with medications. But an occasional drink or two is unlikely to make your cold considerably worse.

Most experts recommend avoiding alcohol for the first few days when cold symptoms are most severe. After that, moderate intake is unlikely to cause harm if you:

  • Drink slowly and steadily over time rather than all at once.
  • Alternate alcohol with water to stay hydrated.
  • Avoid excessive intake (no more than 1 drink per day for women, 2 for men).
  • Abstain completely if taking cold medications that interact with alcohol.
  • Listen to your body and stop drinking if symptoms worsen.

The better approach is to support your body’s natural healing process with rest, hydration, nutritious foods, and avoiding unnecessary toxins from excess alcohol.

The bottom line

Having an occasional drink is unlikely to significantly worsen cold symptoms or duration in healthy adults. But heavy, chronic drinking can impair immunity and lead to more severe illness. The bigger risk is developing unhealthy long-term drinking habits that negatively impact your health.

While abstaining from alcohol during a cold is ideal, moderate intake should not cause harm. Just be sure to drink slowly, alternate with water, and avoid drinking if taking medications that interact with alcohol. Listen to your body and stop drinking if symptoms worsen.

Your best bet is to support your body’s natural healing abilities with proper rest, hydration, healthy diet, and avoiding unnecessary toxins from excess alcohol. This will help you recover faster and get back on your feet sooner.