Alcohol and DVT risk

There are conflicting studies on the effects of alcohol and the risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein of the leg or other location deep in the body. It can restrict blood flow to the area around the clot, but it can also break free of the deep vein and travel to the lungs.

The blood clot can lodge in an artery in the lungs and become a life-threatening pulmonary embolism (PE). A PE blocks blood flow to the lungs and puts a strain on the heart. Together, DVT and PE form a condition called venous thromboembolism (VTE).

Evidence from a 2015 study suggests that excessive alcohol consumption may raise the risk of DVT. However, a 2013 study suggests that moderate alcohol intake may actually reduce the risk of DVT.

The 2013 study was just of alcohol consumption and DVT risk in men. However, there’s no indication that the relationship between alcohol and DVT risk significantly differs between men and women.

Health benefits of alcohol consumption

The possible health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are debatable. Low to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. That may be due to the blood-thinning effects of alcohol, which may inhibit the formation of clots.

A study published in 2007 found that moderate alcohol consumption is actually associated with better health outcomes for older adults than abstaining from it.

But that association may not be a direct cause-and-effect relationship between having a drink and living a longer, healthier life. People who don’t drink alcohol may have other health problems or habits, such as smoking, that affect their health and longevity.

Health risks of alcohol consumption

There’s little debate that excessive alcohol consumption has a negative impact on your:

  • heart
  • circulation
  • liver
  • brain
  • most other organ function

In a 2017 study, researchers found that the risk of VTE increases significantly among people who are hospitalized for alcohol intoxication. Excessive alcohol consumption also affects judgment and increases the likelihood of accidents, falls, and other injuries. It also contributes to weight gain, which is a risk factor for DVT.

Does the type of alcohol you consume make a difference?

In the 2013 study, researchers found no difference in DVT risk between beer and wine consumption. Liquor wasn’t included in that study.

Generally, red wine is considered the “healthiest” form of alcohol. This is primarily because it has the highest levels of polyphenols. Polyphenols are plant-based compounds that act as antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants fight inflammation and promote good health.

Red wine has higher levels of polyphenols than white wine, which in turn has higher levels than beer. Liquor has the lowest polyphenol content, but the highest concentration of alcohol.

Alcohol and blood thinner medications

If you’ve received a diagnosis of DVT or are at high risk for a blood clot, you may be on antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications. These drugs are known as blood thinners. The main goal of these drugs is to help prevent blood clots from forming in a vein or artery.

A common blood thinner called warfarin (Coumadin) is often prescribed to people with a DVT. You’re advised to limit your alcohol intake to one drink a day, if at all, while taking warfarin or other blood-thinning drugs. This is largely because alcohol has similar blood-thinning properties.

If your blood’s ability to clot is too compromised, you run the risk of an internal bleeding incident or of bleeding profusely from a cut or scrape.

You should always check with your doctor or pharmacist about whether it’s safe to drink alcohol while taking a prescription or over-the-counter medication.

Does alcohol consumption while flying increase risk for DVT?

A long plane flight can raise the risk of DVT formation. This is primarily because you’re sitting in the same position for several hours. Drinking heavily during this time may raise your risk of DVT even more.

Your best defense is to have little or no alcohol on a long flight and to get up and walk around as much as you can during the flight. Here are more tips to reduce your risk for blood clots while flying.

What does drinking in moderation mean?

Drinking in moderation is defined a little differently by different organizations. The American Heart Association recommends no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Services recommends no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for men and women. For beer, that equates to about seven or eight beers per week. For wine, that’s about five to seven glasses per week. If you’re drinking liquor, four or five shots per week is equal to 14 units.

In the United States, a serving size contains about 14 grams of alcohol. That means one 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1.5 ounces of liquor all contain about the same amount of alcohol.

What can you do to reduce your risk of DVT?

The risk factors for DVT include several things you can’t help, such as:

  • a family history of this clotting disorder
  • getting older
  • a medical procedure that puts you at risk

But there are things you can do to reduce your risk. If you have surgery, for example, you should try to walk around as soon as you’re able, or at least move your legs to help improve blood flow. When your legs are largely immobile, blood can pool in a vein. This can cause a clot to form.

You can also follow these other steps to prevent DVT:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Move around every hour or so during a long plane flight.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
  • Take your antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications as prescribed.
  • Follow through on all your doctor appointments.

The takeaway

It’s unclear what effect, if any, alcohol has on DVT. If you’ve received a diagnosis of DVT and are taking blood-thinning medication, you may need to limit your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day. Always follow your doctor and pharmacist’s guidelines for alcohol and medication use.

Only about half of people with a DVT experience symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • swelling and redness around the clot
  • pain in the leg while walking
  • warm skin in the area near the clot

PE symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and pain when breathing.

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. DVT and PE are serious, but are usually treatable. Take preventive steps, especially if you’re at a high risk for DVT. Talk with your doctor about other tips to help keep blood flowing easily from head to toe.