Infectious Diseases and Alcohol
Alcohol use can affect the body in many ways, and may weaken the immune system or leave one more vulnerable to infectious diseases. While the research is still developing and infectious diseases comprises a wide variety of complex diseases, there is strong evidence that alcohol use and addiction can increase the risk of developing and the treatment outcomes of infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and COVID-19.1 Understanding how alcohol interacts with the immune system and how it can impact the treatment of infectious and communicable diseases can help you make healthy life choices.
Does Alcohol Weaken the Immune System?
Everyone is constantly exposed to numerous bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other potentially dangerous microorganisms. Many of the microorganisms that people are exposed to can actually be beneficial for them, whereas others can have toxic effects and exposure to them can lead to numerous infectious illnesses or diseases. The immune system consists of numerous systems in the body that detect and remove these potentially dangerous organisms and that can also assist in repairing tissue and, in some cases, even in the regeneration of organs and other bodily systems.2 The immune system is an elaborate network of very highly specialized cells that interact in an organized fashion to perform these functions.2
Some of these defense and control networks are present at birth, and referred to as a person’s innate immunity, whereas aspects of the immune system that continue to develop and adapt throughout an individual’s lifetime as a result of experience are often referred to as adaptive immunity.2 The innate immune system includes barriers, such as the skin and blood-brain barrier that protect organs of the body, the stomach and gastrointestinal system, and specialized immune cells function throughout the body. The adaptive immune system involves several types of cells and other molecules that protect the body from pathogens, that develop and strengthen as a function of being exposed to disease-bearing organisms, and that then actually remember these organisms so if they are ever encountered again, the response can be swift and efficient. There are numerous highly specialized cells in the body that include white blood cells, natural killer cells, T cells, B cells, macrophages, etc.
Alcohol and Liver Infections
The liver’s primary functions include metabolizing nutrients and detoxifying the system after substances have passed on from the gastrointestinal system. The liver is the primary organ that metabolizes and eliminates alcohol from an individual’s system. Individuals who chronically misuse alcohol and drink it in large amounts over time can develop significant liver damage that activates immune cells within the liver, resulting in inflammation.
The liver also functions to produce numerous antibacterial proteins. If the damage to the liver as a result of alcohol becomes chronic, it can result in an increase in an individual’s susceptibility to infectious disease. Severe chronic damage to the liver can result in cirrhosis, which can lead to severe alcoholic hepatitis.
Alcohol and Respiratory Disease
Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to damage in numerous areas of the defense system of the lungs, resulting in an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, including tuberculosis and pneumonia. Long-term heavy alcohol abuse significantly damages the cells lining the airways that are covered with cilia (tiny hairs) that trap potential infectious particles before they get into the lungs.
Heavy alcohol use interferes with the ability of immune cells to identify and destroy bacteria that is in the lungs and can lead to an increased risk for infection. Heavy alcohol use also impairs the function of the immune cells that recognize and destroy pathogens that cause tuberculosis, and individuals who have dormant tuberculosis infections can develop tuberculosis rather quickly. Severe lung diseases, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome, are 2-4 times more common in individuals who have a history of alcohol abuse than in individuals who do not have such a history.
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, it’s important to understand that there is help available. Evidence-based addiction treatment can lead to positive health outcomes. Additionally, finding effective treatment near you can be a quick process. You may want to consider first reaching out to your doctor. They may be able to help determine your medical needs and may be able to refer you to a suitable treatment center. Additionally, you may benefit from visiting the SAMHSA treatment locator, a powerful tool that can help you locate rehab centers near you.
Addiction helplines, like the one owned and operated by American Addiction Centers, can also help you find addiction treatment. These powerful tools provide 24/7 support for those curious about or seeking alcohol addiction treatment. At AAC, our compassionate staff can help answer your questions about alcohol addiction, help you find suitable rehab centers, and help to verify your insurance coverage. Don’t delay, call us today at to get started.
- National Library of Medicine. (2021). Alcohol Use and the Risk of Communicable Diseases.
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (2013). Overview of the Immune System.
- National Library of Medicine. (2015). Alcohol’s Effect on Host Defense.
- National Library of Medicine. (2015). The Role of Innate Immunity in Alcoholic Liver Disease.
- Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. (n.d.). Alcohol Use as a Risk Factor in Infections and Healing.