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Alcohol destroys immune system, warns NIH

Alcohol consumption, even short-term alcohol misuse, can have devastating effects on almost every single organ and system of the user, including the immune system.

In 2015, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recognized the devastating effects of alcohol on the immune system and issued a warning about the link between immune system problems and alcohol consumption. A series of articles on the destructive consequences of alcohol misuse and dependence on people’s immune system was published in the journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews.

Alcohol and immune system

People with alcohol use disorders are more vulnerable to significant health problems like certain cancers and diseases due to the strain caused on the body’s immune system. Alcohol not only interferes with a person’s ability to fight off bacterial and viral infections, it also contributes to immunosuppression and tissue damage due to inflammation and cancer.

Our body’s immune system plays a critical role in keeping us alive and healthy by fighting off diseases, parasites, bacteria and viruses. Over time, chronic and excessive alcohol use can contribute to immune system difficulties, including greater abnormalities in the levels of:

  • Antibodies called immunoglobulins (Ig)
  • Dendtritic cells
  • Natural killer (NK) cells
  • Monocytes
  • Macrophages
  • Cytokines
  • Neutrophils (a type of white blood cell known as a granulocyte)
  • T-lymphocytes (T-cells)
  • B-lymphocytes (B-cells)

Dysregulation in the levels of these important specialized cells in the bloodstream and throughout the body can greatly impair the body’s ability to fight off diseases and increase a person’s susceptibility to a host of infections and other health problems.

The figure given below shows the distribution of these cells that reside in the primary and secondary lymphoid organs.


Figure: Distribution of immune cells in the body. Courtesy: “Alcohol’s Effects on Immunity –Increasing the Risks for Infection and Injury” – NIAAA’s Alcohol Alert Number 89.

Health consequences of immune system dysfunction

Alcohol can have a broad range of devastating consequences on the immune system, making it unable to fight off an array of infectious diseases, says Patricia E. Molina, M.D., Ph.D., a professor and department head of physiology, and her colleagues, at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Louisiana, and other researchers.

As a result, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to following problems:

  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Viral and bacterial infections due to physical trauma or surgery
  • Adult respiratory distress syndrome
  • Hepatitis C infection
  • Cirrhosis and other liver injury
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Hepatocellular cancer
  • Lung abscesses
  • Empyema (pus accumulation in the chest)
  • Meningitis (inflammation of brain and spinal cord membranes)
  • Cellulitis (connective tissue inflammation)
  • Diphtheria
  • Bacterial peritonitis
  • Cancers (mouth, liver, throat, esophagus, large intestine, breast)

Seeking treatment

Alcohol use disorders can be deadly and people should be aware of the toxic effects of alcohol on the body. Damage to the immune system can be serious and even deadly. At Sovereign Health of Texas, we provide individualized and comprehensive behavioral health treatment programs to patients of alcohol use disorders or other substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders. To find out more about the treatment programs offered at Sovereign Health of Texas, call our 24/7 helpline to speak to one of our English- or Spanish-speaking team members.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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