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Long COVID linked to alcohol sensitivity and debilitating hangovers

Recent research has found that some individuals diagnosed with long COVID might face unusually severe aftereffects from drinking alcohol. Conducted by Stanford University researchers, the study involved interviews with individuals reporting persistent symptoms well after recovering from COVID. Remarkably, these individuals noted experiencing significantly harsher hangovers.

Alcohol sensitivity 

“Alcohol reactions and sensitivity are not well characterized in the literature as it relates to post-viral illness. While there have been some anecdotal reports of new alcohol sensitivity in PASC [Post-acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 ] patients in the media, there is a paucity of published data in the medical literature about this topic,” the authors wrote. 

“During their medical consultation, the patients self-reported new changes in their symptoms or behaviors following the use of alcohol. A new onset of alcohol sensitivities should be assessed along with other post-COVID-19 symptoms and may provide novel avenues to explore the pathobiology of illness and potential interventions.”

Debilitating hangovers

For instance, a 49-year-old female participant reported enduring long COVID for 11 months, during which even moderate wine consumption rendered her nearly immobile. Another case involved a 40-year-old woman who previously enjoyed up to seven cocktails nightly but found herself unable to tolerate even a single drink post-COVID, suggesting a three-month struggle with long COVID symptoms.

Harmful substances reaching the brain

The findings led researchers to infer that patients recovering from COVID may develop heightened sensitivity or adverse reactions to alcohol. They speculate that COVID-induced bodily inflammation could compromise the blood-brain barrier’s integrity, potentially exacerbating hangover symptoms by allowing more harmful substances, like alcohol, to penetrate the brain.

This study, involving four patients from Stanford’s Post-Acute COVID Syndrome clinic (PACS), sheds new light on the symptoms of over 3.3 million Americans estimated by the CDC to suffer from long COVID. This condition is challenging to pinpoint and encompasses symptoms such as persistent fatigue, cognitive fog, and a diminished capacity for daily activities.

Post-COVID alcohol sensitivity 

Highlighted within the study is a 49-year-old woman who noticed a stark contrast in her reaction to alcohol post-COVID, suffering from intensified hangovers accompanied by fatigue and grogginess. She had been battling long COVID symptoms, including breathlessness and appetite loss, alongside managing type 1 diabetes and breast cancer.

Another account involves a 40-year-old who described a single drink as triggering symptoms akin to alcohol poisoning, resulting in prolonged headaches and discomfort. This patient, who also has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, asthma, and hypertension, reported ongoing cognitive issues and breathlessness as part of her long COVID ordeal.

Long COVID and adverse reactions to alcohol

Additionally, a 60-year-old man reported a newfound inability to enjoy even a single beer without experiencing chronic headaches, a shift attributed to his five-month battle with long COVID symptoms such as cognitive impairment and sleep disturbances, despite having no preexisting conditions. A 36-year-old woman with sleep apnea also noted adverse reactions to alcohol, including skin flushing, a year into her long COVID experience.

Weakening of the blood-brain barrier

The researchers theorize that the aggravation of hangover symptoms in long COVID sufferers may be due to the virus-induced inflammation weakening the blood-brain barrier. This barrier, crucial in segregating circulating blood from brain fluid, becomes more permeable upon alcohol consumption, potentially leading to more severe hangovers for those with long Covid due to increased inflammatory molecules in their bloodstream.

Further research is needed

Although acknowledging the need for further investigation due to the small participant group and reliance on self-reported data, the researchers propose a potential linkage between COVID infections and subsequent alcohol intolerance. These findings suggest a novel area of study in the ongoing exploration of long COVID’’s impact.

“Further research in the form of larger cohort studies is warranted to better understand the prevalence of this association in PASC patients and the range of alcohol reactions and sensitivities and explore potential associations with specific post-COVID-19 clinical phenotypes and other factors with post-COVID-19 alcohol sensitivity,” noted the study authors. 

“Furthermore, investigating the underlying biological mechanisms responsible for new-onset alcohol reactions and sensitivity may provide valuable insights into the underlying pathophysiology of post-viral conditions.”

The study is published in the journal Cureus.


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