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How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Immune System?

Immunity is the body’s ability to fight off disease and infection. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people’s immune systems have not been effective at fighting off this virus. Many people have died due to their compromised immune systems and other “at-risk” factors.

The immune system is able to tell the difference between healthy cells and invaders that make cells “sick.” The immune system also can determine when there are various warning indicators that an invasion is beginning.

If the immune system is able to respond fast enough, it can fight off infections, diseases, and illnesses before they become too serious. If it does not respond quickly, this is what leads to more serious infections, diseases, and illnesses.

Additionally, once the threat has been eliminated, the immune system will begin to return to normal functioning. If for some reason it does not, there can be other problems that occur—like an autoimmune disease.

Does Alcohol Lower Your Immune System Response?

With alcohol sales increasing significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC and WHO are worried that people could be compromising their immune systems. Alcohol and the immune system are not designed to benefit each other.

While drinking in moderation is okay, once dependence on alcohol takes shape, things are completely different. Alcohol lowers your judgment and often gives people a false sense that they are invincible, so they will take bigger risks.

Some of the risks that people tend to take when impaired by alcohol include:

  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviors with one or more individuals.
  • Engaging in risk-taking activities that place one’s life in danger.
  • Disregarding public health and safety guidelines, such as to wear facemasks and socially distance six feet.

As a result, not only are people placing themselves at great risk, but their consumption of alcohol has also placed their immune systems at greater risk too.

When a person drinks excessively, the alcohol starts to damage cells in the body. In the immune system, these cells are damaged, so the body is trying to repair them rather than responding to an “invader.” By the time the body realizes there is an “invader,” it is often too late: The infection, illness, or disease has spread. With COVID-19, once it worsens, a person could require hospitalization and a ventilator just to breathe. In severe cases, the person could die.

In addition, alcohol kills healthy microorganisms living in the digestive system that help the immune system to function correctly. Without healthy microorganisms, the risks of getting an infection, illness, or disease increase since there is nothing to stop the “invader.”

Another interesting aspect of alcohol and the immune system is the amount of alcohol consumed. People who drink daily could be at risk, as well as those who binge drink. The immune system response starts to slow once the person has consumed about 14 normal-sized drinks a week.

As anyone with a drinking problem knows, you are quite likely to be drinking that amount or more daily. As such, the immune system is essentially ineffective at fighting off infections, illnesses, and diseases.

Do Drugs Lower Your Immune System Response?

drunkard fall asleep on the sofa.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system and lungs. While there is a wide range of symptoms like running a fever, body aches and pains, and so on, the thing which causes people to have to go to the hospital and need a ventilator is that they cannot breathe. The ventilators attempt to help the person breathe, but these machines are not always effective with more complex cases of the coronavirus.

Drugs and the immune system work in different ways. Some drugs like antibiotics and antivirals help support the immune system. Other drugs like opioids and methamphetamines lower the immune response. These drugs damage healthy immune system cells much like alcohol.

Furthermore, the continued use of certain drugs causes damage to gradually become more widespread throughout the body. For instance, long-term use of opioids can destroy macrophage cells and lymphocytes, both needed to help maintain a healthy immune system.

Other types of drugs can have similar negative effects in the immune system, as well, like inhalants. Inhalants are drugs that are inhaled in some manner. They can include various types of gases, sprays, liquids, and nitrites.

One of the more common types of liquid inhalants is vaping juice or e-juice used when vaping. Many of these liquids have harmful chemicals that damage and kill immune cells and the fine “hair-like” cilia that help prevent dust, dirt, bacteria, viruses, and other infectious cells from reaching the lungs.

Without the cilia, there is nothing to stop these things from getting into the lungs. Once an infectious cell gets into the lung, it can propagate, multiply, and spread quickly to other parts of the body.

Another type of inhalant that can lower immune responses is the smoke from marijuana and tobacco products. The smoke can literally “burn” away the cilia, as well as cause respiratory problems in the lungs.

The immune system responds to smoke as an “invader” and is busy attempting to repair damages caused by it. With the immune system busy, it makes it easier for other infections, illnesses, and diseases to invade the body.

Why the Combination of COVID-19 and Substance Abuse Is Dangerous

When it comes to substance abuse, people will be more focused on their addictions and not concerned about getting sick. They will not stay at home because they need to go buy alcohol or meet up with their drug supplier. They will not socially distance or wear a facemask in most cases.

People with a substance abuse problem will also gather in groups without following any of the safety protocols. For example, they will visit a “drug den” (drug house) where people gather to acquire, use, and share drugs and/or alcohol.

Most people have no idea they are sick, and they will spread the virus from one person to the next while feeding their addiction. They will also continue to drink or use drugs to avoid going into withdrawal, which is as dangerous and life-threatening as COVID-19.

Sadly, it is an endless circle that doesn’t stop until the person is ready to seek help either through an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) or an Outpatient Addiction Program. With COVID-19, in many cases, it is not until someone starts experiencing more severe symptoms of the virus that there’s the realization they are sick—like when they start having problems breathing.

Why Is Getting Sober Good for the Immune System?

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The good news is that the damages drugs and alcohol cause to the immune system can be repaired by seeking help from our addiction treatment center in Delray, FL. During your inpatient or outpatient treatment program, you are taught the skills and given the tools to live a healthy lifestyle that promotes a healthy immune system.

Part of the new life skills you learn will include:

  • How much restful sleep you need. Ideally, you want to get plenty of restful sleep—about eight hours on average a night. It is during sleep that the immune system works to keep you healthy and repair damaged cells in the body. This is why we sleep a lot when we are sick.
  • How to reduce stress. Stress can lower immune responses. Learning how to meditate, do yoga, establish mindfulness, or perform other activities that reduce stress is beneficial to maintain a healthy immune system.
  • How to prepare and cook healthy meals. The types of foods we eat also help affect our immune system. When we eat balanced meals with vegetables, grains, fruits, and other foods, we help to ensure we are getting the right number of vitamins and minerals the immune system needs to function correctly.
  • How to exercise. Exercise is essential to help build healthy muscles and tissues. When the muscles and tissues are healthy, we are stronger and so, too, is the immune system. There are all sorts of exercises one can do, from cardio training to weight training. Ideally, you want a balance of both.

Living a sober lifestyle is challenging. We understand that your path to recovery is not over once you complete your outpatient addiction treatment or inpatient addiction treatment. Yet, by focusing on healthy lifestyle habits for a strong body and mind, you will find that you have the strength and will to remain sober.

Please keep in mind that even sober people are at risk of getting the coronavirus. However, when their immune systems are not compromised, they have a better chance of recovering from the virus compared to someone with a substance abuse problem.

If you are ready to take the first steps on the path to recovery and repairing your immune system, please feel free to contact RECO Intensive at 561-501-2439. Our Delray Beach drug and alcohol rehab offers both outpatient treatment programs and sober living housing that are customized to your specific needs, as well as co-occurring disorders.

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