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How Alcohol Affects The Immune System

Published on August 5, 2021
How Alcohol Affects The Immune System

Ethanol, the chemical compound in alcohol, has a wide range of effects on the human body and the various organs and cells within it.

These effects extend to the immune system, which is known to be significantly suppressed or disrupted after excessive alcohol consumption.

What Is The Immune System?

The immune system is the body’s complex and overlapping system of defenses, all working to protect you against infectious diseases, toxins, cancer, and other threats.

This bodily system includes physical barriers like the skin, mucus membranes, and cilia in your nasal passages. It also includes lymph and lymphatic tissues, bone marrow, a variety of white blood cells, and antibodies.

Short-Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Immune System

While drinking alcohol can certainly make you feel sick, alcohol itself does not cause infection. However, it does damage or slow down different parts of the immune system. 

This effect makes it more likely that you will get sick, that you’ll have worse symptoms if you do get sick, and that it will take longer for you to feel better.

Specifically, alcohol is known to harm or impair elements of the immune system including:

  • helpful gut microorganisms
  • white blood cell function and production
  • the lymphatic system
  • epithelial cells in the gastrointestinal system, which help keep pathogens out of your tissues
  • cilia in the upper airways, which keep pathogens out of the lungs
  • overall cell growth and healing

Heavy Drinking & Moderate Drinking

These effects are worse if you practice binge drinking or heavy drinking over a period of a few days. The sudden volume of alcohol can shock the system and suppress the immune system function for some time. 

But even moderate alcohol consumption is thought to have some effect on the immune system and, potentially, on how your body handles any bacterial or viral infections you may face in the following days.

Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol On Immune Function

Chronic alcohol abuse over a prolonged period irritates the body’s immune system. These changes are complex, occurring at a chemical and cellular level and involving relationships between different tissues and organs inside the body, often leading to serious health effects.

These effects can include:

  • increased susceptibility to infection, especially respiratory infections such as pneumonia or covid-19/coronavirus
  • poor immune response leading to increased severity of infection and longer recovery times
  • potential for infections that healthy individuals do not typically develop
  • increased risk of a variety of cancers
  • increased likelihood of developing mental health conditions including major depression and anxiety, which are also known to decrease immune performance
  • increased likelihood of chronic organ inflammation

Organ Inflammation

Organ inflammation is of particular interest. Excessive alcohol consumption can inflame tissues contributing to major causes of death such as heart disease, liver disease/hepatitis, cirrhosis, and pancreatitis.

Cancer

Cancer is also a major cause of concern. Although alcohol is a carcinogen (a compound known to promote cancer formation), heavy alcohol use also makes it less probable that your immune cells will naturally be able to catch the cancer early on. 

This can reduce the effectiveness of later cancer treatments if the immune system is not operating at its full potential.

Is It Possible To Improve Your Immune System?

The best way to deal with health issues stemming from alcohol use disorder, including compromised immune function, is to stop drinking alcoholic beverages. 

Long-term sobriety provides health benefits that give the body time to heal and restore the different parts of the immune system. 

Other recommendations to improve immune performance include:

  • not smoking
  • getting enough sleep
  • eating a balanced and nutritious diet
  • exercising
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • limiting stress and anxiety
  • practicing good hygiene and hand washing

If you or a loved one worries about the effects of heavy alcohol use, please contact us today to learn about our treatment options.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Alcohol Research Current Reviews - Alcohol and the Immune System
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol and the Immune System
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Immune System and Disorders

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