Have people become more addicted to alcohol during the pandemic?
Disclaimer: Drinking alcohol does not prevent or treat the COVID-19 virus
COVID-19 pandemic has hit India like a brick on the face, causing an insurmountable impact on people’s physical and mental health. Similarly, substance use addiction is another pandemic that if collided with COVID-19 can cause a total collapse of the healthcare system.
COVID-19, Isolation and Alcoholism
When the lockdown restrictions were eased last year, the queues at liquor stores extended to many kilometres. In cities like Delhi and Mumbai, the queues were tens of kilometres long. Social distancing rules were flocked and masks were thrown out the window while declaring a victory over COVID-19. But the expectations couldn’t stand the test of time. The carelessness on all fronts silently brooded another wave, which has been more fatal than before.
India is currently facing the second wave of coronavirus where people have been again forced into the world of isolation. While last year people struggled to find alcohol due to strict lockdown parameters and alcohol ban, it is easier to find alcohol or similar beverages this year. However, the isolated environment the country is facing during the second wave is increasing anxiety and depression in people than before, thereby pushing extensive alcohol use trends.
Impact Of Lockdown on People Having Alcohol Addiction
A report suggests that the frequency of alcohol consumption of adults over 30 years of age increased by 14% in 2020 as compared to 2019. It is also being observed that people with anxiety and depression are extensively using alcohol, especially people of older generations.
As per two online surveys administered in the US, 29% of participants administered an increased use of alcohol. It was also observed that respondents between the age of 18 to 39 years had the highest probability of extensive alcohol use during the pandemic. While for the respondents above 39 years, extensive alcohol consumption was observed in people with anxiety and depression.
The alcohol use trend during both COVID waves addressed the elephant in the room. When the physical sale of alcohol stopped during the lockdown in 2020, the search for ‘how to make alcohol at home’ peaked on the internet at its high. However, the amount and pattern of drinking remained higher for consumers of cheap and local alcohol.
Dilemma Around Forced Alcohol Abstinence
Alcohol withdrawal commonly occurs after abrupt cessation of consistent or heavy use of alcohol. The regular symptoms seen in people who are forced towards abstinence are body tremors, excessive sweating, anxiety, seizures, aggression and similar others. It is said that 15% of the people experiencing alcohol withdrawal syndrome suffer severe withdrawals. Similarly, the mortality rate among those individuals is also very high (above 20%), however, can be reduced to as low as 1% with early symptom detection and medical intervention.
During the lockdown, when a person with alcohol dependence ran out of alcohol, one of the following things happened:
- They got into an alcohol withdrawal state
- Developed risky behaviours by considering other illicit substances to consume (sanitisers like substance that contain alcohol)
- Impulsively harmed themselves or others out of frustration
Deaths have been reported in cases of illicit substance consumption (like sanitiser) to fulfil their needs for alcohol. As it has been forced alcohol abstinence during isolation, people suffering from its addiction also suffered psychologically.
The lockdown and ban of alcohol created such a state for people with alcohol addiction that led them towards developing risky behaviours accompanied by severe withdrawals.
A major dilemma for countries like India runs around examining policies from a utilitarian perspective and consider limitations of alcohol ban effectiveness as a public health measure.
The other dilemma, however, is on the capacity of health systems to cope with the people struggling psychologically and physiologically due to the unavailability of alcohol. The treatment gap for these issues is still significant in India.
Alcohol Abuse As A Risk Factor for Contracting COVID-19 Virus
National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that drinking alcohol does not prevent or treat coronavirus infection and can impair immune functions. Hand sanitisers contain around 60-95% ethyl alcohol that is effective as a surface disinfectant. However, drinking alcohol or alcoholic beverages with high alcohol content offers no protection against the COVID-19 virus.
After drinking a standard glass of alcohol, the blood alcohol levels reach 0.01-0.03%, which is a fraction of the alcohol concentration required to produce antiseptic action. As people do not stop at one glass, the alcohol levels are bound to rise. Especially for those suffering from alcohol addiction, a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40% remains fatal.
Consuming alcohol in high quantities is far from offering protection rather makes the body more susceptible to viral infections and worsens the prognosis. Besides, alcohol abuse tends to impair a human body’s response to pathogens, making it easier for infections to develop.
Similar is the case of the COVID-19 virus whose contraction and development inside the body can be triggered by alcohol abuse. Also, alcohol misuse is bound to complicate the COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and recovery process.
Addictive Behaviour, Early signs, and Treatments
When an alcoholic beverage (or alcohol) is consumed for an extended duration, it results in neuronal adaptations in the stress and reward pathways and enhances neuroendocrine response and stress reactivity. It means longer durations of alcohol can impact your nervous system significantly, which results in craving alcohol more than before, especially during stressful situations. The effects of alcohol abuse are always harmful to the human body, fatal in some cases.
The unique situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone into isolation, social distancing, and sustained lockdowns, which resulted in developing stressful situations for people with alcohol addiction. Besides withdrawals, depression and chronic anxiety followed by panic attacks are common scenarios.
However, these signs can be detected at an early stage to get appropriate medical intervention.
Early Signs and Symptoms
- Persistent headache
- Increased heart rate
- Inconsistent sweating
- Confusion in making decisions/choices
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Body tremors
- High blood pressure
These symptoms can be seen within a couple of days during alcohol abstinence. If any of the signs are visible in the person suffering from alcohol addiction, medical intervention is the best possible way for their betterment.
If the symptoms worsen, it can lead to harmful behaviours and hallucinations.
The treatments generally depend on the severity of the symptoms and their duration. Home care, hospitalisation, and medication are the ways to treat the patient.
If the movement of people is difficult due to restrictions from public authorities, opting for home care seems to be a good alternative for treating an alcoholic. The first goal of this treatment is to make the person comfortable by managing signs and symptoms that could be achieved through counselling.
However, the person needs to be hospitalised in case the symptoms worsen. People with severe alcohol withdrawal have recovered successfully after a timely medical intervention. But sleep disturbance and irritability or fatigue continues for several months. So, nothing must stop an individual from getting appropriate treatment. In fact, connecting with a doctor is the best way to move forward during difficult times.
Although the best way to avoid getting into such a situation is to not consume alcohol. If a person is not able to do so, seeking counselling and medical care is the best way out.
Only to a certain degree, the lockdown and isolation can help people who are either trying to quit or reduce alcohol intake. As people are going out less, there remain fewer opportunities for them to drink or buy any alcoholic beverage.
Counselling during such situations is helpful and makes people more aware of their actions. Even if they can not stop drinking entirely during chronic social isolation, they will be more aware of themselves and reasons for drinking, or their relationship with family and alcohol.
Slips or relapses are more likely to happen for people who currently suffer from alcohol withdrawals due to abstinence. It does not mean any progress made during the lockdown or unavailability of alcohol is lost. Give it a little time and everyone can get back on track with their normal individual lives.