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Excessive alcohol use is usually associated with damage to the liver. While that is a common side effect, researchers are now warning that heavy drinking can also take a toll on the lungs.

Alcohol can break down the immune system in the lungs, making them more vulnerable to infection, and the damage it causes. It's why alcoholics are at increased risk of developing pneumonia and life-threatening acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), for which there is no treatment.

Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University say they have discovered that one of the keys to immune system failure in the lung is a build-up of fat. It's significant, they say, because it not only explains why alcohol is linked to lung disease but offers the possibility of a new treatment.

Alcoholic fatty lung

“We call it the alcoholic fatty lung,” said lead researcher Ross Summer, M.D. “The fat accumulation in the lungs mimics the process that causes fat to build up and destroy the liver of alcoholics.”

When you over-consume alcohol your liver cells begin to produce fat – most likely a defense against the toxic effects of alcohol. Over time that fat accumulates to the point that heavy drinkers develop so called “fatty liver disease."

The fat build-up at first impairs liver function but can also cause scarring that eventually leads to liver failure. So, what does this have to do with the lungs?

The lungs also contain cells that produce fat. These cells expel a fatty secretion onto the inner lining of the lung to keep the airways properly lubricated during breathing. Summer and his teams speculated that these cells might act the same way liver cells do after extended alcohol exposure.

The study

Laboratory rats were enlisted for experiments and the researchers noted the lung cells increased production of triglycerides by 100% and free fatty acids by 300%. The researchers also noticed that immune cells in the lungs were less effective against infection.

From this, the researchers conclude that lipid lowering drugs might be an effective tool for doctors treating alcohol-related pneumonia. They think it might also head off development of ARDS.

Increased scrutiny

Alcohol only recently has received new scrutiny as a serious health threat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are approximately 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year that can be attributed to excessive alcohol use, making it the third leading lifestyle cause of death in the nation.

“Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) annually, or an average of about 30 years of potential life lost for each death,” the CDC said in a report.

In 2006, there were more than 1.2 million emergency room visits and 2.7 million physician office visits due to excessive drinking, the agency said. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2006 were estimated at $223.5 billion.

Then there is the whole category of deaths and injuries due to accidents caused by excessive alcohol consumption. And there is some evidence that the current statistics understate the problem.

In March researchers writing in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggested a lot of highway deaths – and other accidents in which alcohol was a factor – might not make it into the alcohol-related statistics.

Between 1999 and 2009, more than 450,000 Americans were killed in a traffic crashes. The researchers maintain that in cases where alcohol was involved, death certificates very often failed to list alcohol as a cause of death.

Defining problem drinking

What constitutes excessive drinking? Heavy drinking is defined as 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks for men.

But don't think only drinking on Saturday night – but polishing off 12 beers – will qualify you as a moderate drinker. Binge drinking, according to the CDC, is the worst kind.

Binge drinking is defined as 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women and 5 drinks for men.

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