Alcohol and Your Immune System

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Although you may experience some enjoyable effects from alcohol, you are likely aware of the potential harm over-consumption can do to your body. We have long heard about how alcohol can impair our motor skills, judgment, state of consciousness, and, of course, our liver.  

woman under blankets, alcohol and your immune system
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

But did you know that there is a relationship between alcohol and your immune system? Indeed, alcohol use can make us more susceptible to common infections and viruses. It is also associated with a higher incidence of serious conditions like HIV, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. 

In fact, with the emergence of COVID-19 (along with other recent respiratory illnesses), the term “compromised immune system” has become all too common over the past few years.  

So, let’s take a closer look at alcohol’s effect on your immune system, how drinking can affect your body’s defenses, and actions you can take to stay healthy. 

How Your Immune System Works

We know our immune system fights to keep us healthy, but we don’t ordinarily question how it works. The immune system is comprised of a variety of different cell types and proteins designed to recognize and/or react against foreign material (germs).1

To better understand how the immune system works, we can hone in on the two broad categories of immune responses: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.

Innate immune responses are nonspecific “natural killer” cells, and complement proteins. Innate responses to infection occur rapidly and reliably. They are your first line of defense against harmful materials. Even infants have strong innate immune responses.2

Adaptive immune responses, on the other hand, are highly specific to new invaders.3 They involve T cells and B cells, which learn how to recognize antigens and not attack our own cells.4 These adaptive responses are helpful due to their long-lived memories and the ability to adapt to new types of infections.

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How Alcohol Impacts Your Immune System

So, how does alcohol affect your immune system? For one, drinking actually distracts your body from other processes. Once you start drinking, your body has to work to metabolize the alcohol, since it considers ethanol a toxin.

blood cells alcohol and your immune system
Photo by Narupon Promvichai on Pixabay

Also, alcohol has an impact on white blood cells and antibodies—our body’s line of defense. Research indicates that alcohol disrupts nearly all cells of the immune system, and that includes decreasing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells.5

Then there are the gut and lungs to consider. Alcohol can trigger inflammation in the gut, and destroy the microorganisms that live in the intestine and maintain immune system health.6 

In addition, heavy drinking can increase the risk of adult respiratory distress syndrome7 and other pulmonary diseases—including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This is because the innate cellular defense system that protects our lung health is impacted by alcohol.8

Alcohol And Immunity Myth Busting 

Does Alcohol Kill Germs?

While alcohol kills viruses and bacteria on surfaces, it does NOT kill germs in your body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an alcohol concentration of at least 65 percent to kill bacteria and viruses on the skin and surfaces. You would die of alcohol poisoning long before the concentration of alcohol in your blood was able to kill any disease!9

Can You Drink When You’re Sick?

You may be wondering if it is harmful to drink when you are feeling sick, and how much is too much. These days, many of us ask this question with alcohol and COVID-19 in mind. 

To date, there is little research on the impact alcohol has on COVID-19 recovery. However, common sense informs us not to drink when we have any active infection. Your body needs to focus all of its energy on the recovery and healing process.

Consuming alcohol likely slows your recovery since your immune system isn’t functioning at optimal levels when you are drinking. The bottom line is, it is best to avoid drinking during illness if you want to feel better quicker. 

How Much Alcohol Is a Problem For Your Immunity?

woman on roof in winter, alcohol and your immune system
Photo by Spencer Backman on Unsplash

Like many people, you may still want to enjoy alcohol without compromising your immune system. But, you aren’t sure what amount is safe. 

As with most things in life, the arrow points to “moderation” (unless you are in a high-risk group due to poor health or pregnancy). 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines excessive drinking as eight or more drinks a week for women, and 15 or more drinks a week for men. The CDC also defines binge drinking as four or more drinks in two to three hours for women, or five or more drinks in that same time period for men.10

Clearly, heavy drinking is to be avoided (for many reasons). However, the link between moderate drinking and immunity isn’t as clear. According to a 2007 review, “moderate alcohol consumption seems to have a beneficial impact on the immune system compared to alcohol abuse or abstinence.”11 

Staying Healthy

It is no surprise that the key to boosting your immune system is a healthy lifestyle—which includes good nutrition, plenty of sleep, regular exercise, no smoking, and avoidance of stress.12 And if you drink alcohol, drinking in moderation is also on the list. 

Winter can be a challenging time when it comes to our health. There are lots of illnesses going around, and we are often stuck indoors—which can also mean excessive eating and drinking.

If you’d like to reduce or quit drinking, there are innovative new options for support. Online programs like Ria Health offer customized care from home, without disrupting your daily life. Ria provides access to anti-craving medications, weekly coaching meetings, expert medical advice, and more—all from an app on your phone.

Get in touch with a member of our team today, or learn more about how it works.


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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who believes in the uplifting power of words. She especially enjoys writing about health, relationships, employment, and living one’s best life. Lisa has a Master’s in Education and previously worked in vocational and educational services. Her articles can be found on Your Tango, Thrive Global, Heart to Heart, Medium, Muck Rack, and on various professional websites.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.

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