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How a Drug or Alcohol Addiction Affects Your Immune System

Consistent, prolonged, and excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs can weaken your immune system, making you more likely to get sick, struggle to fight off infections, develop sepsis, and are more prone to viral infections passed through blood or body fluids.

Healing addiction and immune system weakness is possible. Contact the Woods at Parkside today to learn more.

Drugs affect your body in various harmful ways. Substance abuse affects several body systems, and each drug affects the body differently. The individual impacts of substance use will usually vary from person to person. How a particular drug may impact you depends on several factors unique to you, including your overall health, body size, the type and amount of the drug, and whether you are consuming alcohol or taking other drugs simultaneously.

It is also important to remember that drugs have both short and long-term physical and psychological effects. The most significant impact of addiction is overdose or death. Statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 70,000 Americans died from a drug-involved overdose in 2019.

A Brief Overview of Addictions Effects on Physical Health

man with addiction and weakened immune system feeling sick with his head on his hand

How a Drug or Alcohol Addiction Can Affect Your Physical Health Infographic

Although various drugs have different effects, several side effects of short- and long-term substance use are often seen regardless of one’s substance of choice. Substance use affects virtually every organ and system in the human body to varying degrees.


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  • Ongoing drug use weakens your immune system, dramatically elevating your risk of infection
  • or illness.
  • Many prescription drugs affect your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Drug use has harmful and sometimes irreversible effects on your digestive system.
  • Many drugs affect your lungs, leading to respiratory rate and function changes.
  • Drugs also impact your liver, reproductive system, and kidneys and significantly affect cognitive health and function.

Understanding Your Immune System

Your immune system is vital in protecting your body from illness and disease. It works invisibly to help ward off toxins and filter everything that enters your body. Your immune system is comprised of a collection of organs, proteins, and cells. The U.S National Library of Medicine explains the three key ways this complex system works.

  1. It neutralizes pathogens (germs), including bacteria and viruses, and helps remove them from your body.
  2. It recognizes and neutralizes harmful substances that enter the body.
  3. It fights cells native to your body (your own cells) that have mutated or changed. A typical example of this includes cancer cells.

What Affects Do Drugs and Alcohol Have on Your Immune System?

When pathogens do not adversely impact body responses, your body functions (including its immune response) will run smoothly. But, when it encounters toxins, bacteria, and other pathogens, it can weaken your body’s ability to counter the effects of foreign invaders. This is when illness and disease can take hold.

The risk to your immune system does not necessarily come from alcohol or a specific drug. Instead, your immune system is weakened by the effects ongoing substance use and abuse have on the various systems in your body. Most substances cause a range of physical symptoms, including dietary change, sleeping problems, dehydration, and a host of other physical and mental health complications. All of the above can lead to a weakened and poorly functioning immune system.

Alcohol and its Effects on Your Immune System

The National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that “excess alcohol consumption may lead to immune deficiency, causing increased susceptibility to certain diseases.” Chronic, prolonged alcohol use and abuse may lead to several health impacts directly or indirectly connected to a weakened immune response.

  • Prolonged alcohol use may cause problems in your digestive system, causing damage to the cells which secrete the enzymes needed for digestion.
  • Long-term alcohol use leads to liver damage and liver failure. The liver is where vitamins are stored in the body. When liver damage occurs, it can impact vitamin levels leading to reduced immunity.
  • Alcohol may affect your ability to store protein.
  • Prolonged alcohol abuse may cause autoimmunity, a condition that causes the immune system during which the body attacks its own tissues.
  • An alcohol use disorder may affect the white blood cells in the body, which are responsible for eliminating “killer” white blood cells. Without this defense system, you are at a heightened risk of developing more life-threatening diseases like cancer.

How Other Drugs Affect Your Immune Response

While alcohol abuse can harm your immune health in several ways, so can other types of drugs.

Heroin

As with many opioid drugs, heroin use may result in addiction. When a person becomes addicted, they think only about obtaining and using heroin. This fixation can cause a person to neglect personal health, such as sleep and food needs, resulting in a weakened immune system. As with alcohol use, heroin use may also affect your digestive system, causing a lack of proper nutrition and a weakened system.

Cocaine

The Endowment for Human Development organization states, “cocaine users are more likely than nonusers to suffer from HIV, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, and other infections.” This is due to the impact of cocaine use on the individual’s immune system. Cocaine is a stimulant drug that disrupts the function of a critical protein system component. Without the operation of this protein, the body is not as effective at fighting disease as it would typically be.

Prescription Drugs (Morphine):

As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “morphine works to suppress the immune system through a “brain-to-body” pathway. Addictive prescription drugs like morphine sets off a “chain reaction,” which ultimately leads to the suppression of three different types of white blood cells.”

Marijuana

This psychoactive drug has a negative impact on a variety of body cells, including those in the immune system. Marijuana use reduces the body’s ability to fight viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa-related diseases. The immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells might be impaired due to its diminished capacities.

What Happens to the Immune System When You Stop Drugs?

The immune system is the most complex system in the human body and, indeed, one of the most important. It identifies and neutralizes harmful pathogens and keeps our bodies healthy. Excessive alcohol and drug use can damage the liver, which is crucial in triggering your immune system’s response. Drug and alcohol abuse can also significantly affect the immune system by reducing and suppressing white blood cell production. White blood cells are the body’s main line of defense against illness and disease–the potential dangers of which are apparent.

Compound the above with an increased risk of malnutrition (the most significant cause of immunodeficiency), and you have a recipe for a weakened immune system.

Getting sober helps leads to many immune system improving benefits. When drugs and alcohol are no longer in the picture, your body no longer has to work overtime to process the toxins that drug use introduces to the body. Without drugs and alcohol, your body has its nutritional needs met, and normal white blood cell production returns, allowing it to become stronger again and fight off infections more efficiently.

No matter how severe your addiction is, the positives of sobriety outweigh ongoing use. The body’s ability to heal after weeks, months, or years of abuse is incredible, but you can’t begin healing until you quit.

Let us help you heal your immune system. Contact the Woods at Parkside today to learn more.

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Please note: For medical emergencies, please call 911. For other urgent matters, please call our admissions line (419) 452-4818. Submissions after-hours, weekends, or holidays may experience a longer response time.

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