How alcohol harms your immune system

Drinking too much, too often, can take a toll on your immunity. Here’s what you need to know.

Many of us have felt the effects of over-indulging in alcohol every now and then.

But as well hangovers, drinking can have some lesser known effects on our body, too – such as its impact on our immune system.

During winter, when we are at greater risk of colds and flu, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, having a strong and resilient immune system to fight infection is paramount.

And cutting back on alcohol is one thing we can do to help strengthen our immune health.

“Alcohol has an impact on our overall physical health, especially if we are drinking to excess,” says Dr Andrew Rochford, emergency doctor and Drinkwise ambassador.

“If you’re drinking to a point where it’s impacting your physical health, that will increase your risk of having a poor outcome when it comes to COVID-19 or any other virus.”

How the immune system works

When you are exposed to a virus or bacteria, your body mounts what is called an immune response.

This includes releasing natural chemicals in the body that cause an inflammatory response which starts to attack and kill the virus or bacteria.

But some factors can disrupt the immune response. Age is one factor – as we get older our body’s ability to respond to, and kill, bacteria or a virus quickly declines. Alcohol also has a negative effect.

Alcohol’s effect on the immune system

“Alcohol slows down the way the body starts to respond and attack bacteria or a virus,” explains expert Melinda Lucas, of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

“It can decrease a person’s ability to even mount a response in the first place.”

Immune cells in the lungs are one area damaged by alcohol. Fine hairs in our lungs that help clear away the pathogens found in bacteria and viruses don’t work as well when our immune system isn’t as healthy as it could be.

This leads to poorer lung health and can mean that colds and flu become a more serious issue, as does COVID-19.

The ADF says that heavy drinking can result in a three- to seven-times higher vulnerability to serious conditions such as pneumonia.

Alcohol also has an effect on the strength of our immune system via our gut.

“A large part of our immune system sits in our gut and alcohol kills healthy gut bacteria. When we weaken that system and kill those bacteria, we are more likely to get gut infections,” says Melinda.

How to help your immune health

Avoid alcohol if you feel unwell

“Even one or two glasses of alcohol have an effect. If you feel a little unwell, the best advice is not to drink any alcohol at all so you don’t impact your body’s ability to fight any infection,” says Melinda.

Cut back on alcohol if you have a medical condition

Anyone with pre-existing conditions, particularly gastro-intestinal or lung conditions, severe asthma, or high blood pressure are at increased risk of the effects of alcohol on the immune system.

Only drink to recommended limits

If you drink alcohol, stay within recommended guidelines. Healthy adults should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and should have no more than four standard drinks on any one day.

Written by Sarah Marinos.