Many people are aware that excessive drinking can be harmful to the liver and other vital organs; however, there is another, less obvious, body system that is vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol: the immune system.
Because of alcohol’s effects on the immune system, people who drink to excess are at increased risk of contracting infectious diseases, may have more complications after surgery, and often take longer to recover from illness, compared with those who drink at lower levels. Disruptions in immune system function also contribute to organ damage associated with alcohol consumption.
An Alcohol Alert issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviews the normal workings of the immune system and explores how alcohol interferes with these functions.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Immune System
Alcohol consumption can alter the number, survival, and function of most immune cells.
Although these alterations alone may not be sufficient to adversely affect one’s health, if a person is exposed to a second “hit,” such as a virus, his or her immune system may be unable to respond properly, increasing the risk of infection.
The specific effects of alcohol on the immune system depend largely on how often and how much a person drinks. Even a single episode of binge drinking can have measurable effects on the immune system, from within the first 20 minutes to several hours after alcohol ingestion.
The order concludes that considerable progress has been made in bringing to light the relationship between alcohol and the immune system. However, the immune system is exceedingly complex, and there still are many gaps in our understanding of just how alcohol affects immunity and, ultimately, health.
Scientists are working to better define the ways in which alcohol interacts with and hampers the immune system. The knowledge gained from this research is expected to lead to new ways of preventing and treating alcohol-related illnesses, enabling physicians to bolster weakened immune responses and tailor treatment to the unique needs of patients with alcohol use disorder.
To read the full Alcohol Alert from the NIH, please click here.