Busting Myths About Alcohol and Coronavirus

The World Health Organization issues a warning about booze

Photo: Michele Lapini

The pandemic may have shut down bars and restaurants, but it hasn’t slowed the nation’s appetite for alcohol. Sales of beer, wine, and liquor are surging, reports Vox; so much so that clinical psychologists at the University of Southern California have expressed concerns about alcohol overconsumption, abuse, and negative effects on immunity, which could make people more vulnerable to Covid-19.

The World Health Organization also cautioned against alcohol use in an update to its website posted Tuesday. It too highlighted well-known public health concerns about alcohol consumption, like the increased risk of injury and violence, especially domestic violence, and the potential for alcohol poisoning. It also pointed out some health risks that are more specific to drinking during the Covid-19 pandemic, warning that consuming alcohol “can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviours, mental health issues and violence.” Drinking alcohol compromises the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infection.

A major part of the update was dedicated to misinformation surrounding alcohol consumption and protection from Covid-19:

“Fear and misinformation have generated a dangerous myth that consuming high-strength alcohol can kill the COVID-19 virus. It does not. Consuming any alcohol poses health risks, but consuming high-strength ethyl alcohol (ethanol), particularly if it has been adulterated with methanol, can result in severe health consequences, including death.”

Methanol, sometimes called methyl alcohol, is a type of alcohol with a different chemical structure than ethanol, the kind that we drink. This difference makes it toxic: As it’s broken down in the body, it’s transformed into formaldehyde, which in turn becomes formic acid, a compound that can cause blindness and death. Methanol is often added to industrial ethanol products, such as solvents, to prevent people from drinking them, but it’s also sometimes added to bootleg liquor.

People who believe that drinking the boozy kind of alcohol can kill the coronavirus might be confused about the virus-killing properties of yet another type of alcohol known as isopropyl alcohol (or rubbing alcohol), the kind you buy in the first aid aisle in a drugstore and apply to the skin. This type of alcohol can kill the virus on surfaces, but only at high enough concentrations — the CDC recommends 60% alcohol or more for hands, and 70% or more for other surfaces. Any less and it’s not effective, as the New York Times cautioned people against trying to make their own hand sanitizer. And you should definitely not drink it.

Pandemic or not, the risks of alcohol use remain the same as always, regardless of the type of alcohol and how you use it. Drinking ethanol still comes with health risks, consuming methanol is still toxic, and isopropyl alcohol is still only useful on surfaces at high enough concentrations. For more information, you can read the WHO’s fact sheet about alcohol here.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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