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Alcohol and the Immune System — What You Should Know

Alcohol and the Immune System — What You Should Know

Heavy drinking and chronic alcohol use can significantly impact the immune system and decrease immune function. Most people probably don’t think about the body’s immune system when they think about drinking alcohol, but alcoholic drinks can weaken the body’s ability to fight off viruses and infections, making the body more prone to colds, bacterial infections, and serious health conditions such as cancer and liver failure. 

It’s important to pay attention to the negative impact alcohol misuse can have on the immune system because understanding how alcohol affects the body can help you live a longer, healthier life. Continue reading to learn more about alcohol, inflammation, and immune responses.

How Alcohol Affects Your Immune System

Alcohol affects the body in many ways. Someone who drinks a large number of alcoholic beverages on one occasion or drinks frequently may experience hangover symptoms such as nausea, headache, and dehydration. However, alcohol can also weaken the immune system, cause serious health conditions and make the body more vulnerable to infections and viruses. Alcohol immunosuppression can cause someone to catch a simple cold easier than other people or develop a more serious condition such as cancer or septicemia.

Alcohol causes inflammation throughout the body, and it causes red blood cells to attach to each other in a harmful way. The unhealthy red cell bonding clogs smaller blood vessels, reducing the body’s nutrient and oxygen flow and preventing the immune system from receiving the nutrients necessary for proper function. It’s important to understand that heavy alcohol consumption can cause the following short-term and long-term effects:

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System

Alcohol starts to affect your body as soon as you start drinking it, so you may experience adverse health complications shortly after drinking. Alcohol has the following short-term health effects on the immune system:

1. Higher Vulnerability to Disease

As soon as you drink a sip of alcohol, your body begins to prioritize breaking down alcohol. This means that its functioning shifts to focus on breaking down the alcohol and takes its energy from other critical functions such as fighting diseases. While your body is metabolizing alcohol, it has a lower ability to fight off infections and viruses, making you more vulnerable to developing a cold or more serious condition. 

Alcohol also reduces sleep quality, which increases a person’s chances of getting sick and recovering from illnesses. Adequate sleep helps the body fight off infections and viruses, and the less sleep you get, the less your immune system can protect your body.

2. Gut Complications

Alcohol triggers gut inflammation and destroy healthy gut bacteria. Alcohol enters the gastrointestinal system first as it proceeds through the body, and this is where it absorbs into the bloodstream. It affects the gastrointestinal tract’s integrity and structure by altering its microbiome. 

The intestine contains microorganisms that help maintain a healthy immune system, reduce the risk of infection and help the gastrointestinal tract function normally. Alcohol intake kills this bacteria, hindering the body’s ability to clear pathogens. Without healthy gut bacteria, viruses and infections can worsen and develop into more severe complications. Alcohol also damages T cells, neutrophils, and epithelial cells, which disrupts the gut barrier’s function.

Gut barrier damage can make the body more vulnerable to food poisoning, and epithelial cell damage can hinder the intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients. When the gut barrier cannot function properly, harmful bacteria can leak into the bloodstream, leading to further complications.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System

Heavy drinking can cause health complications that turn into serious conditions if left untreated. Additionally, continuing to drink alcohol when it has adverse effects on the body can worsen its effects. Drinking alcohol frequently or in large amounts can cause the following long-term effects:

1. Liver Disease

Alcohol is a common cause of liver disease because the liver filters alcohol. Each time a person drinks alcohol, some of the liver’s cells die, and new ones regenerate. Over time, heavy drinking can reduce a liver’s regenerative abilities and lead to alcoholic liver disease (ALD). This alcoholic liver disease typically starts as fatty liver disease and progresses to alcoholic hepatitis and, eventually, alcoholic liver cirrhosis. 

2. Liver failure

When ALD reaches its final stage, known as alcoholic liver cirrhosis, the damage is irreversible and leads to complications. The damage is irreversible because scar tissues build up and replace the liver’s regenerative cells, preventing the organ from healing.

3. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C

Hepatitis is a condition that causes liver inflammation. A virus often causes hepatitis, but it can also be caused by certain medications, some medical conditions, heavy alcohol use, and short-term infections. When alcohol hinders the immune system, the body is more vulnerable to infections and viruses such as hepatitis B and C. 

Alcohol consumption can allow the hepatitis virus to persist as a chronic condition, and alcohol use disorder combined with hepatitis often accelerates liver disease progression. 

4. Septicemia

Septicemia is a severe bloodstream infection. It’s caused by a bacterial infection that begins elsewhere in the body, such as in the gut, lungs, skin, bladder, or kidneys, and enters the bloodstream. Septicemia is a serious condition because it can cause the bloodstream to carry bacteria and toxins throughout the entire body. Without rapid hospital treatment, septicemia can lead to sepsis, which is life-threatening.

When alcohol damages the gastrointestinal tract’s barrier, bacteria and toxins can enter the bloodstream easily, potentially leading to septicemia and sepsis. 

5. Urinary tract infection (UTI)

A urinary tract infection is an infection in the urethra, bladder, or kidneys. Alcohol does not directly cause UTIs, but it can increase a person’s risk of developing a UTI and worsen the symptoms of an existing UTI. When alcohol hinders the body’s immune system, it also hinders its ability to fight UTIs because it allows bacteria to travel throughout the body faster. 

6. Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, alcohol use can increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer in the liver, breast, throat, mouth, larynx, and esophagus. It can also increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Alcohol hinders the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients that protect against cancer, such as the following:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B 
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Folate
  • Carotenoids

Alcohol also causes the body to metabolize toxic chemicals and increase hormone levels. For example, an increase in estrogen can lead the body to develop breast cancer. When a person drinks alcohol, their body metabolizes it into acetaldehyde, a chemical that can damage DNA and prevent the body from repairing it. Since DNA controls cell function and growth, damaged DNA can cause cells to grow uncontrollably and develop tumors. 

Alcohol’s effect on the immune system can also affect cancer recovery. Having a fully functioning immune system is crucial to successful chemotherapy treatment, so a person’s body may not handle or react to conventional chemotherapy as well if they drink alcohol. 

7. Respiratory Complications

Alcohol use can cause respiratory complications such as pneumonia, empyema, respiratory syncytial virus, tuberculosis, lung abscess, and adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). 

The respiratory tract contains cilia, which are microscopic projections that move the mucus toward the throat. This movement prevents bacteria, particles, and fluid from entering the lungs. Alcohol impedes ciliary function in the respiratory system’s upper airways, allowing mucus to enter the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia. Alcohol also impairs immune cell function and weakens epithelial barrier function in the lower airways, which can cause bacterial respiratory infections.

People can develop a lung abscess when bacteria from the throat or mouth enter the lungs and create a pus-filled cavity surrounded by swollen tissue. This can occur when someone is intoxicated or under anesthesia. A secondary lung abscess can develop from a lung obstruction or infection that begins in another body part. A lung abscess can lead to cough, chest pain, fever, fatigue, night sweats, appetite loss, weight loss, sputum, and, empyema.

Empyema is a condition similar to pneumonia. It causes pus to accumulate in the respiratory system’s pleural cavity, the space between the chest cavity’s inner wall surface and the lungs. Since pneumonia is an infection inside the lung, a person can gradually cough it out. Empyema occurs outside of the lungs, so doctors must remove it via surgery or by draining it with a needle. 

This condition occurs when bacteria enter the chest cavity’s pleural space, typically due to pneumonia or a post-surgery infection. A weakened immune system increases an individual’s chances of developing empyema.

8. Cellulitis, Post-Surgery Complications, and, Slow Healing of Wounds

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin’s deeper layers that causes pain, swelling, and, redness in the skin’s infected area. It’s a common infection, but it can cause serious health complications if left untreated and spread breaks in the skin, such as cuts, bites, ulcers, and puncture wounds, which can allow bacteria into the skin. 

Alcohol can hinder the body’s ability to recover from tissue injury and heal infections. If a person regularly drinks alcohol, their injuries, cuts, and surgical site wounds may heal slower than someone who avoids alcohol. They are also more vulnerable to developing cellulitis and surgical site infections. 

Factors That Affect How Alcohol Affects Your Immune System

Factors That Affect How Alcohol Affects Your Immune System

The impact alcohol has on the body is mainly due to the way the body processes alcohol. However, some factors can affect how much damage alcohol causes. Factors such as the amount of alcohol a person drinks, how often a person drinks, the type of alcohol they drink, and whether they are biologically male or female can increase or decrease how much it affects their immune system. 

Amount

Heavy drinking is more likely to affect a person’s immune system than moderate drinking. Women drinking fewer than two drinks at a time and men drinking fewer than three drinks at a time is considered moderate drinking. 

However, women who drink more than two drinks on one occasion and men who drink more than three drinks on one occasion may experience more health complications due to their excessive alcohol consumption. 

Frequency

The frequency at which a person drinks also determines how much it affects the immune system. A person who drinks every day is more likely to have a weakened immune system and experience health complications than someone who rarely drinks or only drinks on occasion. 

Chronic drinking and acute binge drinking are associated with a higher predisposition to various health problems. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provide definitions for heavy drinking and binge drinking:

  • Heavy drinking: NIAAA considers more than four drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks weekly heavy drinking for men and more than three drinks daily and seven drinks weekly for women. SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking five or more days in the past 30 days.
  • Binge drinking: NIAAA considers binge drinking a pattern of drinking that raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08% or higher, which typically equates to five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in a two-hour period. SAMHSA defines binge drinking as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women during the same instance — such as at the same time or within the same timeframe — on one or more days of the past month.

Type of Alcohol

Some alcoholic beverages contain components that combat ethanol’s damaging effects. The ethanol in alcohol damages immune cells because it generates free radicals. Alcoholic drinks containing antioxidants may cause less damage than other drinks because they help protect against some of the free radicals in ethanol. While any alcoholic drink can have negative effects on the body, beers or wines that contain vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols may cause less damage to the immune system than heavy liquors.

The effect of beer on the immune system may not be as significant as the effect of stronger alcoholic beverages, but it’s important to remember that beer and wine can cause adverse health effects and even suppress the body’s immune response in excessive amounts. 

Gender

Women are typically more vulnerable to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases than men, and men have a higher risk of infections than women. Women are less vulnerable to infections because they have higher levels of estrogen during their pre-menopausal years, which helps the body boost the immune system and fight disease. 

Is There Any Amount of Alcohol That’s OK to Drink?

While binge drinking is typically more harmful than occasional drinking, any amount of alcohol can have adverse effects on the body and its ability to fight infections and diseases. Drinking every day or drinking too much alcohol at a time may affect the immune system more than drinking every other day or every few days, but the healthiest thing to do is abstain from drinking completely. 

If you drink twice or week or less and only drink two to three drinks per occasion, your immune system may not be at a high risk of damage. However, it’s best to limit your alcohol intake as much as possible. If you find it challenging to limit or stop your alcohol intake, it may be time to seek help for alcohol addiction. 

Contact Gateway Foundation for Help With Alcohol Addiction

Contact Gateway Foundation for Help With Alcohol Addiction

Understanding the impact of alcohol on the body’s immune system is important. Alcohol affects the body far beyond its short-term side effects. Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption can suppress the immune system, making the body vulnerable to viruses and infections. Alcohol misuse can cause short-term effects such as the common cold or gastrointestinal complications, but it can also lead to more serious conditions such as cancer, septicemia, or, liver disease.

Stopping alcohol use can significantly improve your health, boost your immune system and protect your body from serious infections and viruses. If you or a loved one needs help with alcohol addiction, Gateway Foundation can help. Gateway Foundation offers safe and effective treatment so you can get back to living a healthy life. Contact Gateway Foundation to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one pursue recovery.

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