Overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by about 14% from 2019, the researchers reported in the journal JAMA Network Open. That increase averages out to about one additional drinking day per month by 75% of adults.
RAND Corporation sociologist Michael Pollard and colleagues analyzed a nationally representative sample of 1,540 people ages 30 to 80. The participants completed a survey about their drinking habits between April 29 and June 9 of 2019 and then again between May 28 and June 16 of 2020.
The volunteers reported they drank alcohol on more days every week. They also reported increases in the number of drinks they had; the number of heavy drinking days; and the number of alcohol related problems over the last 30 days between 2019 and 2020.
Frequency of drinking increased by 17% among women, 19% among people aged 30 to 59 and by 10% among White people.
Heavy drinking among women increased by 41% -- about one additional day of heavy drinking for one in every five women. Nearly one in 10 women, or 39%, reported an increase in alcohol-related problems, the researchers found.
"At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviors, mental health issues and violence," the World Health Organization said in April.
The researchers say it's important to watch for whether the increases in alcohol consumption persist over the pandemic, and whether there will be physical and mental health consequences as a result.
A dangerous combination
The uptick in drinking among adults isn't necessarily a surprise. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Director Dr. George Koob said that the US has seen similar increases in alcohol consumption during other times of crisis, like after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and some recent hurricanes.
However, the increase in drinking during this crisis could be especially dangerous. Experts say it may actually increase the risk of Covid-19 spread and severe illness.
Not only is alcohol often consumed in crowded settings, like bars and parties, said Koob; it lowers a person's inhibitions, making it more likely people will allow close contact and talk more, raising the likelihood they could spread the virus.
Excessive alcohol use has been linked to a weakened immune system and other negative health effects, also.
"About half the people that have acute respiratory distress syndrome are individuals who have misused alcohol," said Koob. "We worry that if you're drinking excessively, that could set you up, if you contract the virus, with a more severe respiratory problem."
Substance use issues could be on the rise
Experts are also concerned about substance use disorder. Increasing levels of alcohol consumption and sales indicate a rise could be coming.
"Everything points to the fact that substance use disorders, and specifically alcohol use disorders, are on the rise," said Dr. Paul Earley, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Earley said the increased isolation, stress and uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has created the "perfect storm" for substance use disorders.
"It's very clear that when people are under more stress, they respond to the stress with increasing alcohol consumption," he said.
Earley added that those who are currently trying to quit drinking or are in recovery from a substance use disorder may be particularly vulnerable to relapse right now, especially in the absence of in person support.
"The most common way people heal is through the warmth of social interaction," said Earley, adding that the pandemic, by its very nature, has forced many into isolation.
Koob noted that about two thirds of people who have an alcohol use disorder relapse during periods of stress, but stress can bring on increased drinking even for those who have never had a problem with it before.
"This is the kind of thing that could push people who wouldn't normally have an issue over the edge," Earley said.
Experts say it can be hard for people to recognize they have a substance use problem.
"Alcoholism is the only disease that tells you you don't have it," said Earley. "You can't assume that when you're starting to drink more, that you're going to know when you're in trouble and when you're not."
He said that if a person is drinking more than planned, feels the need to hide their drinking, or is experiencing feelings of guilt or shame, it may be time to seek help.
Finding healthy ways to cope with stress can help prevent substance use issues from developing. Koob suggested taking regular breaks from work, exercising, maintaining a regular schedule and getting enough sleep.
For those seeking help, telehealth and virtual support options are available. Reaching out to family and friends, experts say, is a good first step.