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Why Binge Drinkers Are Slower to Heal From Wounds

The term binge drinking is used to identify a pattern of alcohol consumption that results in the rapid appearance of a blood-alcohol content that meets the legal definition of intoxication. Doctors and public health officials already know that this rapid-onset drunkenness increases the likelihood of a range of serious harms for affected individuals. In a first-of-its-kind study published in April 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Loyola University Chicago found that binge alcohol  exposure reduces the amount of white blood cells that chew up bacteria and debris, interfering with the body’s natural ability to heal its physical wounds.

Men who binge drink typically reach the blood-alcohol content that signifies legal drunkenness (0.08 percent) when they consume five standard servings of alcohol in two hours. Women who binge drink typically reach this level of drunkenness when they consume four standard servings of alcohol in the same amount of time. According to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17 percent of adults in the U.S. consume alcohol in ways that meet these criteria an average of once a week. The peak overall number of binge drinking participants appears in young adults between the ages of 18 and 34. However, elderly adults who binge drink have a higher average level of alcohol intake than their younger counterparts.

Physical harms previously linked to either short-term or ongoing participation in binge drinking include the onset of alcohol poisoning, a higher chance of being accidentally injured, a higher chance of being purposefully injured, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems such as strokes and hypertension, nerve damage, liver damage and a reduced ability to manage the symptoms of the blood sugar disorder diabetes. Binge drinkers also have increased risks for sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies and giving birth to children affected by fetal alcohol syndrome.

Alcohol and Wound Healing

The human body repairs the damage caused by physical injuries in several interconnected steps. One of these steps is a flooding of injury sites with specialized white blood cells that destroy infection-causing bacteria and also help remove any foreign material. In a study review published in 2010 in the Journal of Dental Research, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago looked at the various factors that can interfere with one or more of the critical phases of wound healing. These researchers specifically identified the chronic alcohol exposure associated with alcoholism as one of those factors. This makes sense, since alcohol is toxic to the human body and has a known potential to damage the tissue in a range of vital organs.

Binge Drinking and Wound Healing

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the Loyola University Chicago researchers used laboratory experiments on mice to examine the impact of binge drinking on the body’s ability to properly heal its wounds. The researchers gave half of these mice alcohol in an on/off pattern that mimicked periodic participation in alcohol binges; the remaining animals were not exposed to alcohol. All of the mice received wounds designed to mimic serious injuries to the skin.

When the researchers compared the wound-healing rate in the alcohol-exposed mice to the rate in the mice not exposed to alcohol, they found that the alcohol-exposed mice healed from their injuries at a substantially slower pace. Upon further investigation, they attributed this slowed rate of healing to three factors. First, the mimicked alcohol binging reduced the number of white blood cells that arrived at the injury sites of the affected mice. In addition, the researchers linked this reduced output of white blood cells to the impact that the mimicked binge drinking had on the animals’ natural, involuntary ability to “tell” white blood cells that their help was needed. Binge drinking also interfered with the actions of specialized skin proteins that normally help kill invading microorganisms.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study believe they are the first researchers to detail the changes in body function that make binge drinkers susceptible to unusually slow wound healing. They specifically note that one of the bacterial species that can potentially gain access to the body as a result of this delayed healing is Staphylococcus aureus (Staph A), a microorganism capable of triggering skin infections such as impetigo or cellulitis, as well as severe health problems such as blood poisoning, heart valve infections and bone infections.

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