What you should know about Alcohol, COVID & ‘Gray Area Drinking’

Last Updated: February 15, 2023

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With the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol use has become more prevalent as a way to cope. COVID-19 drinking has pushed more people into “gray area drinking”, in which they drink alcohol heavily, but are not considered an alcoholic.

Pandemic Drinking

During the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol use increased by 14%, with almost one in five Americans reporting drinking unhealthy levels of alcohol during the pandemic. The combination of stress and anxiety around health, boredom in quarantine, and constant uncertainty may have created an environment where alcohol use is more likely.

Gray Area Drinking

Gray area drinking is an informal term that refers to people who may be developing a drinking problem, but do not technically meet the clinical diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder. Gray area drinking indicates an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, but does not necessarily mean that alcoholism has developed.

Symptoms of Gray Area Drinking

Because gray area drinking is not actually a clinical term, there are no specific symptoms connected with this type of drinking. Someone who is engaging in gray area drinking, however, may find that they are:

  • Drinking more frequently than they used to
  • Drinking more in one setting than they used to
  • Drinking to relieve stress more than for enjoyment
  • Finding it difficult to stop drinking
  • Drinking alone more often

Gray area drinking can indicate that alcohol use disorder, while not yet present, may be an increased risk.

The Borderline Alcoholic

“Borderline alcoholic” is similar to gray area drinking, but describes the person, not the action. The term “borderline alcoholic” does not have a clinical meaning, but is normally used to describe someone who is close to meeting the definition of someone with an alcohol use disorder, even though they are not quite there yet.

Pandemic and Gray Area Drinking Lead to Alcoholism

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many people closer to alcoholism, causing them to increase the amount of alcohol they consume. Many people may find themselves in a gray area and are even starting to develop alcoholism. Someone who may be a gray-area drinker should watch out for several signs of coming close to developing an alcohol use disorder

  • Finding it more difficult to say no to alcohol
  • Drinking at times and in places you didn’t previously
  • Drinking alone more frequently
  • Finding that alcohol doesn’t have the same effect that it used to
  • Finding yourself thinking about alcohol more frequently

Alcohol and COVID

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people changed their drinking behaviors. During this time, research shows a:

Scientists also point out that sustaining increased alcohol use for at least one year can raise an individual’s risk of serious health problems by 19–35%.

Facts About Alcohol Use and COVID-19

Aside from other health conditions associated with alcohol use, people who drink alcohol are also at risk of heightened COVID complications:

Myths About Alcohol Use and COVID-19

There are several untrue myths regarding alcohol use and COVID, including:

  • Drinking alcohol provides protection against COVID-19.
  • Using high-strength alcohol can help treat COVID-19.
  • Hand sanitizer can be substituted for drinking alcohol.

Drinking Alcohol Before COVID Vaccine

There is not much research on the relationship between drinking alcohol before taking a COVID-19 vaccine and the vaccine’s effectiveness. Alcohol is known to suppress your immune system, and some sources suggest heavy drinking before getting the vaccine may suppress the immune system’s ability to provide the protection that the vaccine should create.

Can You Drink After COVID Vaccine?

There is very little research on drinking after a COVID-19 vaccine; however, drinking in excess may cause immunosuppression after the vaccine. Additionally, the vaccine can cause unpleasant symptoms such as tiredness, aching and a general feeling of being unwell. Drinking alcohol during this time may make these symptoms worse.

How to Know if You Have a Drinking Problem

Ultimately, the only way to know that you have a drinking problem is to be assessed by a doctor for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. However, there are multiple clinical tools that can help gauge a problem with alcohol:

For many people, they’ll notice a problem with drinking exists when it has negatively impacted their relationships or financial situation, when they find it hard to stop drinking or that they experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they do stop.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol addiction treatment typically involves two key steps. The first step is detox, where the body adjusts to the absence of alcohol. This is when withdrawal symptoms occur; withdrawal can be a dangerous part of recovery, especially if alcohol has been used heavily. Detox will take about 7–10 days in most situations.

After detox will be rehab. This part of treatment focuses on building healthy habits and developing strategies to stay sober after using alcohol. Rehab may involve therapy and starting medications to help with cravings. Rehab and detox can both be done as an inpatient or outpatient treatment, but the best option will depend on the person’s specific situation.

Rehab Protocols During COVID

During the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, we are dedicated to maintaining the health of our patients and staff. To ensure the safety of everyone, we have taken several health measures as we navigate the pandemic, including:

  • Requiring all staff and patients to wear face masks
  • Screening all new patients for COVID-19 and only admitting those who are negative
  • Quarantining all new patients for 24 hours and doing a second COVID-19 test prior to ending quarantine
  • Temporarily shifting visitation methods to avoid in-person exposure risks
  • Restricting travel offsite
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