a hot toddy with a honey dipper, lemon and cinnamon

Alcohol... For Asthma?

After posting the article, "Community Views: Frequent Nighttime Asthma Symptoms" on our Facebook page, many community members chimed in with what helps them manage common nighttime asthma symptoms. Interestingly, there were quite a few community members that shared that a small amount of alcohol like whiskey helps them manage their nighttime symptom of phlegm. Alcohol is commonly reported as an asthma trigger, but can it actually be helpful for some people?

Can alcohol actually help asthma symptoms?

One of the most popular drinks that people claim can help with the common cold or phlegm is a hot toddy. A hot toddy is a warm beverage with honey, lemon, sometimes cinnamon, and either whiskey or bourbon. Hot tea or even just hot water can help thin mucus, so it makes sense that this would be the preferred beverage if one is sick with a cold or cough, or has a build-up of mucus.1 In the case of a hot toddy, it is likely just the hot water and honey that provides a sense of relief.

What does the whiskey or bourbon do? According to a professor and chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, Dr. William Schaffner, alcohol can dilate blood vessels, and provide relief to swollen mucus membranes that are fighting off the infection.2 If your mucus membranes are swollen from a viral infection or asthma exacerbation, a small amount of alcohol may provide some relief. To be clear, this is just one doctor that was interviewed on this topic, and I could not find a study on this particular subject.

The research

In one small survey I found, 23.2% of patients shared that alcohol made their asthma symptoms better. On the other hand, 32.1% of patients in the survey said that alcohol made their asthma worse.3 To clarify, what this study shows is that for some people with asthma, alcohol can exacerbate their asthma symptoms, but for a small number of people, it can provide relief.

Another study shared that alcohol certainly has an effect on mucociliary clearance (the self-clearing of the airways in the respiratory system). Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of the effect of alcohol on airway mucus, but "...one can hypothesize that brief exposure to modest amounts of alcohol improves airway clearance, there are no studies to directly support this hypothesis."4

Alcohol as an asthma trigger

Alcohol contains histamines and sulfites, and these things can be an asthma trigger. Wine is the most common alcohol to cause an asthma exacerbation due to the level of sulfites. However, beer, cider, and hard alcohol can still be triggering.5

After drinking alcohol, some may feel a tight chest, breathlessness, or wheezing. Alcohol is also dehydrating, and being dehydrated can cause your mucus to thicken, which is certainly not helpful!5

In conclusion

Taking multiple shots of alcohol is certainly not going to eliminate your asthma symptoms. Drinking too much can dehydrate you, causing your mucus to thicken. Additionally, alcohol can be an asthma trigger for some. However, a small bit of alcohol may provide temporary relief from cold, cough, and asthma symptoms.

If you find that a hot toddy helps with your symptoms, it is likely the hot water or honey. There is currently not enough research to claim that alcohol is an effective substance for asthma symptoms or for getting rid of the common cold or a cough.

What has been your experience with alcohol and asthma?

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