How can drinking alcohol affect recovery from surgery?

a profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
13 August 2020

It’s important to be as fit and healthy as you can be before having surgery or a medical procedure. Not only could it make a difference to how well your surgery goes, it’ll also affect how your body recovers afterwards. There are many lifestyle changes you can make that may help to improve your recovery. Here I’m going to focus on how alcohol can affect your recovery.

Effects of alcohol

You may well be aware of some of the health risks of drinking too much alcohol. But did you know it could have a negative effect on your recovery from surgery too?

Regularly drinking too much can affect different organs in your body, including your liver, your pancreas, your heart and your immune system. The effects on your liver and immune system directly affect your body’s ability to heal, which are particularly important after an operation. Your body’s natural ‘stress’ response from having surgery may also be much greater if you drink to excess – and this may worsen any existing health problems.

Drinking alcohol can have a negative effect on all different types of surgery. It’s been linked to a number of specific complications after surgery, including:

  • infections
  • wound healing and complications
  • heart and lung problems
  • excessive bleeding

You’re also more likely to have a longer stay in hospital, and be admitted to intensive care if you drink heavily before your surgery.

How much is too much?

Studies on the risks of drinking before surgery have tended to look at people who regularly drink to excess. In these people, benefits have been seen when they’ve stopped drinking altogether for at least a few weeks before surgery. Drinking low to moderate levels of alcohol is unlikely to increase your risk of complications after surgery. However, the more you drink, the greater your risk. Even just two or three drinks a day can be enough to start having a negative impact on your immune system.

The UK government advises that you shouldn’t regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Fourteen units is the equivalent of six pints of average-strength beer, or six medium (175 ml) glasses of average-strength wine.

Drinking within these recommendations should keep any health risks to a low level.

Making a change

If you’re drinking more than you should, cutting down now may help to reduce your chance of developing complications after surgery. Stopping drinking, or reducing your alcohol intake before surgery, is a big part of ‘enhanced recovery’. This is an approach aimed at helping people recover as quickly as possible after major surgery. It includes other ways of ensuring you’re as healthy as possible before surgery – such as improving your fitness and giving up smoking.

The sooner you stop drinking, or reduce your alcohol intake, the better. Aiming to make changes at least four weeks ahead of your surgery will really help. But if you haven’t been able to do this, even just a couple of weeks beforehand may still have some benefit.

Your doctor or nurse will probably ask you about your alcohol consumption at your preoperative assessment. If necessary, your doctor or nurse may offer you help and support to stop drinking before your operation. This might include counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication for withdrawal symptoms.

Tips for cutting down

Even if it’s not something your doctor has said is a particular problem, cutting down on alcohol is still something you might want to do as a part of a wider effort to get fit and healthy before your surgery. Start by thinking about your routines around when you drink alcohol and how you can alter these.

  • Do you drink when you’re relaxing in front of the TV at night? Perhaps think of a healthy snack to have instead.
  • If you always have a glass of wine when you’re eating dinner, consider reducing your glass size. You could also replace your wine with water or another non-alcoholic alternative on at least a couple of nights a week.
  • If you tend to drink most when you’re seeing friends, try to plan ahead to think how you’ll manage this. You could go for alcohol-free alternatives, have smaller measures and swap every other drink for a non-alcoholic one.

If you experience withdrawal symptoms

If you notice after cutting down or stopping drinking alcohol that you experience any of the following symptoms, you could be suffering from alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms can include:

  • shaking
  • visual hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t real)
  • feeling sick
  • sweating
  • feeling depressed, anxious or irritable
  • having trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • having fits (seizures) – only in the most serious of cases

It’s important to seek medical attention if you get these symptoms, as you may need medication to help relieve them.

Remembering how much better you’ll feel

It can be hard changing our habits, but most people feel better within a week of stopping drinking. Let your friends and loved ones know that you’re trying to cut down and how important it is for your health, so that they can support you. Keep it up and it will really help in getting you in the best possible health before your surgery.

a profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance

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