The medical advice about drinking alcohol and whether it effects peoples' immune response after getting a vaccine shot has been mixed so far, with the general advice seeming to be "don't overdo it." But a new piece in the New York Times suggests that there may be significantly less immune response among those who cross over from "moderate" imbibing to "excessive" drinking.
This news is likely coming a bit too late for a lot of Americans who have been celebrating getting their first and/or second shots with more than a single glass of Champagne. And there's still no actual data on the matter where the COVID-19 vaccines are concerned — drinking was not something that was looked at in terms of immunity levels among people in the vaccine trials. But experts warn that for weeks after either dose of the vaccines, your body is still building its immune response, and heavy drinking can seriously inhibit that for the long term.
"If you are truly a moderate drinker, then there’s no risk of having a drink around the time of your vaccine," says Ilhem Messaoudi, director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine, speaking to the Times. "But be very cognizant of what moderate drinking really means. It’s dangerous to drink large amounts of alcohol because the effects on all biological systems, including the immune system, are pretty severe and they occur pretty quickly after you get out of that moderate zone."
For anyone who enjoys a drink — and we all know San Francisco is a pretty drink-loving town — the guideposts for what "moderate drinking" means are kind of shaming. "Moderate" is defined as one standard drink per day for women, and two standard drinks for men — with that drink being 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer. So if you have a Martini or Manhattan, for instance, you're already at 2.5 or 3 drinks, let alone if you order a vodka soda in the Castro.
And, so, "overdoing" it could amount to a pretty normal weekend for many of us, with heavy drinking being two glasses of wine for a woman, or two stiff cocktails for a man — or just one especially stiff cocktail for a woman.
Some experts have been more circumspect about drinking advice around the COVID vaccines in recent months. Dr. Angela Hewlett at the University of Nebraska answered the question in a February post that Google currently ranks very highly, and in it she says, "concern for alcohol interfering with the immune response to COVID-19 vaccination is only theoretical." She still recommends celebrating one's vaccinated status "in moderation," and she stresses the idea that drinking is likely to exacerbate the side effects people feel from the vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said something similar back in March, saying that getting a hangover directly after getting your first or second shot could lead to some serious unpleasantness. But that's where the advice ended.
Dr. Anthony Cardillo, an ER specialist and CEO of Mend Urgent Care in Los Angeles, told ABC 7 just last week, "We do know that alcohol is a toxin that our liver has to metabolize, so it's advisable as you're mounting the immune response to the vaccine, you want your body to be in tip-top shape and not having to be taxed by anything else." In other words, total abstinence may not be necessary, but perhaps cut back your drinking for a couple of weeks after getting your shots.
The advice from Russian health official Anna Popova back in December was to avoid alcohol for two weeks before getting the Sputnik V vaccine and for 42 days after the second shot, which comes three weeks after the first — so, nearly a three-month cleanse from booze.
"It’s a strain on the body," Popova said. "If we want to be healthy and have a strong immune response, don’t drink alcohol."
This elicited plenty of pushback among heavy-drinking Russians, with one Moscow resident telling Reuters, "I’m unlikely to not be able to drink for 80 days and I reckon the stress on the body of giving up alcohol, especially during [New Year's], would be worse than the [side effects of the] vaccine and its alleged benefits."
The Times piece points to studies of rhesus monkeys — who, like humans, enjoy their beverages, though some do more than others. One study cited gave a group of monkeys unlimited access to alcohol for seven months, and then gave them a vaccine for the poxvirus. Chronically heavy drinking monkeys showed almost no immune response from the vaccine, while moderate drinking monkeys had a very strong response even compared to those who didn't drink at all.
Still, it's going to be a while before there's actual data about humans, these particularly vaccines, and whether breakthrough COVID infections are occurring more amongst boozehounds than other people. It's possible this is all alarmist! For the over-cautious, though, cutting back for a few weeks or months certainly can't hurt — and we all probably still have a few pandemic pounds to lose anyway.
Photo: Kelsey Chance