About 5 percent of Americans engage in what the CDC classifies as heavy drinking (one or two drinks a night). If you fall into that number and you have surgery coming up, you may wonder what you’re going to do about your nightly drink. Can you drink the night before surgery, and how soon after can you start again?

As a general rule of thumb, it’s not a good idea to drink alcohol before surgery. Read on to learn more about why not, and discover how you can safely stop drinking before your operation.

Anesthesia Complications

One of the biggest reasons you can’t drink alcohol before surgery is that it can cause complications with your anesthesia. General anesthesia uses strong medications to slow down your breathing, heart rate, and blood circulation. It just so happens that alcohol use also impacts these major systems of your body.

Your liver is responsible for processing all the drugs that go through your system, including alcohol and anesthesia medications. Having alcohol and anesthesia in your system at the same time can overwhelm your liver. Your anesthesiologist may have to adjust the dose of your anesthesia if you have alcohol in your system or if you have an alcohol addiction.

Increased Bleeding 

One of the risks surgeons have to manage during procedures is bleeding. Of course, patients are going to bleed during surgery, but doctors have to make sure they don’t lose too much blood without it getting replaced. Your body also works to keep you from bleeding out by clotting your blood in the area where you’re cut.

Unfortunately, alcohol acts as a blood thinner, meaning your body won’t be able to form clots as well. This can lead to uncontrolled bleeding during surgery, which can greatly increase your risk during the operation. Your risk also goes up if you have hemophilia or if you’re on a blood thinning medication. 

Problems with Medications

On the subject of medications, after surgery you’re going to be on a variety of additional medications. You’ll have to take medications for pain management, as well as antibiotics to prevent infections. You may also have additional medications you already take for any number of conditions, some of which may be the reason you had to have surgery in the first place.

Alcohol can also interact with some medications, causing serious side effects or making the medicines less effective. In fact, some medications are so sensitive to interactions with alcohol that you can’t use hand sanitizer while you’re taking them. Drinking alcohol while you’re taking these medications could be very dangerous, especially while you’re recovering from surgery.

More Stress on Your Liver

As we mentioned, your liver is responsible for processing all the drugs that go through your body, including alcohol. If you drink and take medicine at the same time, your liver is having to pull double duty processing those substances. This can put more strain on it than it can handle, and over time, it may fail. 

Liver failure can be permanent, and oftentimes, the only cure is a transplant. If you go into liver failure, you may also go into kidney failure, which may also require you to get a transplant. Getting these transplants can be challenging, and keeping you alive in the meantime will be difficult, if not impossible. 

Infection and Sepsis

After surgery, one of the biggest risks patients face is getting an infection. It makes sense – you have a healing wound, and if bacteria gets into it, it can create a fertile breeding ground for an infection to grow. If this infection isn’t managed in time, it could spread to your major organ systems, sending you into septic shock

Because alcohol is a blood thinner, it can cause you to bleed more than average after a surgery. As we’ll discuss more in a moment, this can slow down your recovery time, which extends the opportunities for you to get an infection. And even worse, alcohol actively increases your risk of developing an infection at your surgical site, in your urinary tract, or in your respiratory system.

Longer Recovery Time

After a surgery, most people want to get up and going again as soon as they can. How long it takes to recover from a surgery will depend on a number of different factors, including what kind of surgery they had. An open-heart surgery is going to take a lot longer to recover from than a laparoscopic tubal ligation, for instance.

Because alcohol makes you bleed more, drinking can slow down the rate at which your wounds can heal. Complications during the surgery (which are more likely if you drink beforehand) can also extend your recovery time. And if your liver, pancreas, or nervous system are damaged by alcohol use, it can take longer for your body to heal and get back to normal.

Heart and Lung Problems 

All of the problems we’ve discussed so far are general risks that may increase if you drink before surgery. But regular drinking, especially binge drinking, can cause a variety of problems on its own. Some of these problems can make it more difficult to recover from surgery, since your body will already be in somewhat rough shape.

Alcohol abuse can increase your risk of developing problems with your heart and lungs. Heavy drinking has been linked with high blood pressure, low blood pressure, irregular heart rates, and weakened heart muscles, as well as stroke. All of these conditions can cause complications on the operating table after you go under anesthesia.

Bariatric Surgery Complications

If you drink regularly, you may face some specific complications if you decide to have bariatric surgery. In particular, you need to talk to your doctor about your alcohol intake if you plan to have gastric bypass surgery. This is important even if you don’t drink heavily before you have the surgery.

Several large studies have found a link between gastric bypass surgery and a patient developing alcohol use disorder. In fact, one meta-analysis estimated that patients were about 83 percent more likely to have this disorder three years after surgery than people who had not had gastric bypass surgery. This surgery changes how your body processes alcohol, which could play a role in this increase. 

Be Honest with Your Doctor 

If you’re planning to have surgery soon, the absolute most important thing you can do is to be completely honest with your doctor about how much you drink. Your doctor isn’t there to judge you or berate you. They just want to take the best possible care of you and make sure you come out of your surgery as healthy as possible.

Tell your doctor exactly how much you drink and how routinely you have that number of drinks. It’s also a good idea to let them know what you’re drinking and how you mix it – there’s a difference between two glasses of wine and two shots of vodka and two glasses of vodka a night. Once your doctor knows how much you drink, they can plan your operation appropriately. 

Stop Drinking a Week Before Surgery 

In general, doctors recommend that you stop drinking at least twenty-four hours before your surgery. This gives your body a chance to get all the alcohol out of your system before your operation. However, most doctors agree that it’s best to stop drinking a week before your procedure if at all possible. 

Remaining sober for the week before your surgery can help get your body ready to heal as fast as possible. You’ll be better hydrated, your liver will be at peak capacity, and your kidneys will be on top of their game. Your body will be able to better handle the anesthesia, and you’ll be able to heal faster after the operation is done. 

Avoid Stopping Cold Turkey

While it is a good idea to stop drinking a week before your surgery, there are some situations in which you need to be careful. If your body is dependent on alcohol, stopping cold turkey can be dangerous. You could start to go into alcohol withdrawal, which can be not only uncomfortable, but also dangerous.

If you have a few drinks or more every single day, talk to your doctor about the safest way for you to taper off drinking before surgery. It may be a good idea to start this process as soon as it becomes apparent that you need to have surgery. This can give you time to reduce your dependence on alcohol before your operation.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

If you are a heavy drinker, it’s a good idea to know the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. If you start to experience these symptoms before your surgery, you may want to go to the hospital and tell them what’s going on. These symptoms usually show up within six to twenty-four hours of stopping drinking, although they can manifest as late as five days later.

When you stop drinking, you may notice that you get tremors, that you sweat more, and that your stomach is upset. Your blood pressure may go up, and you might start to feel more anxious or agitated. In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can cause delirium, hallucinations, and even seizures.

How to Manage Withdrawal

If you think you may go into alcohol withdrawal or you are currently in withdrawal, the most important thing for you to do is to seek medical help. Once again, you need to be completely honest with your doctors. Tell them how much you drink, what you drink, and how long it’s been since your last drink, as well as what symptoms you’re experiencing. 

Your doctors can provide you with medications and other treatments to help you manage the symptoms of withdrawal. They may decide to adjust the date of your surgery if possible to give you the safest route to sobriety. If your surgery does need to happen sooner, your surgeons will have to adjust your anesthesia dose to meet your needs. 

Wait for Your Doctor’s Go-Ahead Post-Op

As you may have gathered, staying sober after your operation can be every bit as important for a healthy recovery as staying sober before. If nothing else, you need to wait until you’re off of pain medication to start drinking again. It’s also a good idea to wait until you’re done with your course of antibiotics before you start drinking.

It’s best to wait for your doctor’s go-ahead to start drinking again after your operation. Of course, whether you decide to start drinking again is a personal decision. You may decide to use your operation as an opportunity to get sober for good, or to experiment with sobriety for a period of time. 

Seek Help Post-Op

As you get further out from your surgery, you may find that you’re struggling to stay sober. If you want or need to stay on the sobriety wagon, the best thing you can do is to ask for help. Alcohol addiction is a serious condition, and seeking out help can give you the best chance of taking your life back.

Learn Why You Can’t Drink Alcohol Before Surgery 

Drinking before surgery can be dangerous and unhealthy for a variety of reasons. During the surgery, you may bleed more, and your anesthesia may not work as it’s meant to. After the surgery, your recovery may take longer, and you may experience dangerous interactions with medications.

If you’d like to learn more about treatment for alcohol use disorder, check out the rest of our site at Beat Addiction Recovery. We offer a comprehensive, medication-assisted treatment program that incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy and peer support. Get help today and start reclaiming your life.