How Much Can You Drink When You’re Sick?

Anthony Humphreys/Thrillist

Feel a cold coming on? Perhaps you heard the news that hot toddies can offer some relief, and thought to yourself, "alcohol really IS the answer!"

Ah, if only it were so easy. It turns out there are all sorts of provisos and conditions on boozing while you’re sick. To make sure you’re not praying to the porcelain gods for all the wrong reasons, we spoke to a couple doctors to find out how much you can safely drink when you’re under the weather (without ending up under the table). Keep in mind that this is for general, cold-and-flu kinds of sickness; if you’re too sick to stand, you probably shouldn’t be drinking, and might want to see a doctor.


Alcohol: kills 99.9% of germs!

There’s a nasty misconception out there that goes something like this: when you’re sick, your body’s filled with viruses and bacteria. Alcohol kills those things, so drinking alcohol will kill the pathogens in your body and help restore your good health.

Unfortunately, your blood alcohol content would have to be over 60% for that to be even remotely true. So you’d be disinfected for sure... but you’d also be dead. Leave the antiviral power of alcohol to cleansing wipes, not a fifth of whiskey.

Your immune system needs to focus

Dr. Kathy Gruver, nutrition and stress specialist, warns that alcohol can weaken an already overloaded immune system. In spite of what your brain might think, your body treats alcohol as a toxin, and prioritizes metabolizing it over all other substances. Even on your best days, your body can only metabolize about 1oz of alcohol per hour. Any more than that, and your system’s left fighting off both the sickness and the alcohol, making for a slower recovery.

Your liver might need a break

What do infections and alcohol have in common? Much like alcohol, “Many bacterial and viral illnesses will cause abnormalities to liver functions,” according to Dr. Jeffrey Lederman, an MDVIP-affiliated internist. Sorry if that’s not the answer you were hoping for.

Routine blood tests can reveal if your liver’s acting up during sickness. If so, Dr. Lederman doesn’t recommend drinking any alcohol while recovering. And if blood tests aren’t at your immediate disposal, Dr. Lederman advises that alcohol be kept to an absolute minimum for safe measure (double sorry).


Booze can run interference on your antibiotics

Antibiotics do not make for a good chaser after a hot toddy. Once again, alcohol’s damn metabolism priority is to blame. Who knew booze was such a diva?

Both Dr. Gruver and Dr. Lederman explain that antibiotics can’t properly metabolize while alcohol is in your system. While this may not cause serious harm, it slows down recovery and potentially makes antibiotics ineffective.

Be wary of getting dehydrated

If you’re running a fever, there’s a good chance your body’s dehydrated. Doctors recommend lots of fluids to stay hydrated while sick, and (sigh) alcohol doesn’t qualify. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

All hope is not lost, though. Just keep your fluids in check (the nonalcoholic kinds), and one hot toddy won’t dry you out too much.

Flickr/Thomas Heylen

But alcohol kind of helps you sleep, to a point

You’ve been waiting for some good news, so here it is: a little alcohol can help you fall asleep faster.

Trust me, I’d love to stop and leave you in your current bliss, but there’s more to the story. Deep sleep is the key to recovery, and too much alcohol disrupts that sleep. A “little alcohol” is considered by most to be one standard drink. Much of the relief you’ll find from one hot toddy, glass of wine, or even a plain old beer is thanks to this sleepy side effect.

The caveat? Since several over-the-counter cold and flu medicines contain alcohol, doctors advise against drinking if you’re taking these. So the choice is yours. Alcohol-free medications make this choice a lot easier!

So to answer the question: how much can you drink? Sadly... not much. Any more than the one hot toddy, and you’re probably doing more harm than good. Instead of relying on booze to treat a cold, drink lots of red wine to help prevent it in the first place! There’s your silver lining. Now go eat, drink, and be merry while you’re still healthy!

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who loves his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti. You can follow him on Twitter: @nickaknock.