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Drinking alcohol can increase risk of coronavirus infection: WHO

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As the new coronavirus pandemic keeps millions confined to their homes, people are searching for new ways to pass the time — and for a portion of Canadians, this means drinking more alcohol.

A recent Nanos poll commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found 25 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 35 and 54 reported an increase in the amount of alcohol they drank during isolation.

For those between the ages of 18 and 34, some 21 per cent say they’ve had the same experience since adopting physical distancing measures.

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A similar story is playing out in countries around the world — and experts worry the rise is, in part, due to misinformation about the effects alcohol can have on the virus.

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In early March, a fake letter appearing to be from a U.S. hospital circulated on Facebook for days, stating “consuming alcohol beverages may help to reduce the risk of infection by the novel coronavirus.” This was just one of many examples of misinformation circulating about coronavirus.

Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned.

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“At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviours, mental health issues and violence,” WHO/Europe said in a statement earlier this week.

“WHO/Europe reminds people that drinking alcohol does not protect them from COVID-19, and encourages governments to enforce measures which limit alcohol consumption.”

Not only will alcohol not protect you from the virus, but the organization said it can actually make you more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

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“Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19,” WHO/Europe said.

“In particular, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes.”

To avoid these adverse outcomes, the organization says governments should consider “restricting access” during the COVID-19 pandemic, complemented by “communicating with the public about the risks” and “maintaining and strengthening alcohol and drug services.”

Substance abuse during crises

Addiction affects roughly 21 per cent of Canadians at some point in their lives, and it can damage the brain, body and more.

CAMH defines addiction as the presence of four things: cravings, loss of control of amount or frequency of use, compulsion to use, and using despite the consequences.

Unfortunately, said Michael Chaiton, associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, a situation like the coronavirus outbreak can exacerbate these circumstances.

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“People turn to substances to cope with stress and trauma,” Chaiton previously told Global News.

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“One of the real downsides is that it’s not a very good coping mechanism. [Substances] can actually exacerbate some of the effects.”

For example, although drugs and alcohol may help you feel calm in the short term, they can actually heighten your fear and anxiety in the long term.

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“These substances offer an immediate source of control. Having a drink or smoking can make you feel better right away,” Chaiton said.

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“But long-term, as you get into addiction, then really the substance itself is driving that cycle of coping and stress rather than the outside environment itself.”

If you feel better after having a cigarette, it’s because you’re managing your body’s withdrawal from the nicotine — not the impact of the disaster that was the cause of the stress in the first place.

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There’s little data on the effects of a pandemic on substance abuse, Chaiton said, particularly in the social media age where we are “connected to the sources of information constantly.”

However, there is data on the effects of significant disasters, such as 9/11.

2001 survey found that 10 per cent of New York participants reported an increase in smoking, and nearly 25 per cent of respondents consumed more alcohol in the days following the terrorist attack. Roughly three per cent of people reported an increase in cannabis use.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca