Alcohol after surgery: what you need to know

Patients are nervous about asking me when they can drink alcohol after surgery. Alcohol has many effects on your surgery, including scarring, infection risk, and heart problems. When alcohol after surgery is safe depends on many factors.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Alcohol can make your recovery longer, and more dangerous, after surgery. Learn when it’s safe to drink again.

First, why is alcohol so dangerous around surgery?

Alcohol effects the entire human body, including:

  • Brain: Alcohol interacts with opioid pain medication and can cause sudden death.
    • Heavy alcohol drinkers can have seizures from alcohol withdrawal. These can be life threatening after surgery when you’re not drinking alcohol. Withdrawal typically begins 24-48 hours after the last drink.
  • Heart: Alcohol can weaken the heart muscle.
  • Liver: Alcohol can increase risk of serious bleeding.
    • Like cigarettes, alcohol can change how your body reacts to medications.
  • Immune system: Alcohol weakens the immune system. This increases the risk of serious infections and may slow wound healing.
    • Poor wound healing can leave worse scars.
  • Anesthesia: Alcohol increases anesthesia requirements and anesthesia risks.
    • Furthermore, alcohol mixed with pain medication after surgery can be lethal.

See my article on alcohol before surgery to learn about when to stop drinking before surgery.

Dangers of alcohol after surgery depend on your type of surgery

Minor surgeries affect the body very differently than major surgeries. For example, alcohol use after surgery with minimal sedation (like a dermatology surgery) is typically safer. Here’s why:

Minor surgery:

  • Does not require general anesthesia. You’re never hospitalized.
  • Short surgery, such as less than 30 minutes total time.
  • Have small surgical incisions (minimal scar risks). Think of a small biopsy.
  • Do not need opioid pain medications (taking opioid pain medications with alcohol is dangerous!).

Always ask your doctor or surgeon when it is safe to drink alcohol after surgery. In general, you can drink alcohol the following day after minor surgery. In small operations, alcohol does not have a significant impact on your recovery.

The lethal triad of pain medications, alcohol, and anxiety medications is serious.

Why alcohol is dangerous after larger surgeries

Larger surgeries involve anesthesia, larger surgical incisions, and pain medication. Alcohol has serious interactions with these surgeries.

(1) The lethal combination

My main concern for patients is the lethal combination:

  • Pain medications (oxycodone, morphine, etc.),
  • Alcohol,
  • With or without anxiety medications (xanax, ativan, temazepam).

Famous celebrities have died from similar drug cocktails. I never want to see this in a patient after surgery.

(2) Bleeding risk

Alcohol can predispose to easy bleeding after surgery. This can increase the risk of surgical bleeding, a serious complication. No one wants to have a second operation to fix preventable bleeding complications.

(3) Infection risk

Alcohol can weaken the immune system. This can be harmful after surgery because your body needs the immune system to fight infection in your fresh surgical wounds. Alcohol’s effects on your lungs can also predispose you to pneumonia after surgery. Unfortunately, general anesthesia also predisposes your lungs to infections like pneumonia. This is like a double hit to your lungs.

(4) Wound healing and scars

Alcohol can disrupt you body’s ability to heal wounds. Poor wound healing can lead to unsightly scars. This is all the more important for scars in visible places. Think plastic or cosmetic surgery, or abdominal surgery. Alcohol may also worsen swelling after surgery.

When to resume alcohol after surgery

Always ask your doctor when it is safe to drink alcohol after your specific operation. Given alcohol’s effects on scarring and infection, you want to wait until your body is done healing. You also never want to mix alcohol with pain medication as it can be lethal.

This timing usually comes to 1-2 weeks, but it may be longer depending on your type of surgery. Please be safe after your surgery!


Learn more about preparing for the best surgery experience with Dr. Kaveh and subscribe. Remember, the best preparation tool is a personal discussion with an anesthesiologist, tailored to your personal medical history.

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The provided information is not intended as medical advice, simply general educational content.


References

Spies C,  Tønnesen H,  Andreasson S,  Helander A,  Conigrave K. Perioperative morbidity and mortality in chronic alcoholic patients, Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 2001, vol. 25 (pg. 164S-70S)

Zevin S,  Benowitz NL. Drug interactions with tobacco smoking. An update, Clin Pharmacokinet, 1999, vol. 36 (pg. 425-38)

Tonnesen H. Alcohol abuse and postoperative morbidity, Dan Med Bull, 2003, vol. 50 (pg. 139-60)

H. Tønnesen, et al. Smoking and alcohol intervention before surgery: evidence for best practice, BJA: British Journal of Anaesthesia, Volume 102, Issue 3, March 2009, Pages 297–306

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