Alcohol and Your Immune System

Table of Contents

It’s no secret that drinking alcohol can have numerous effects on your body. We all know alcohol can impair your judgement, motor coordination, and alter your state of consciousness—and that’s just what it does to your brain! But did you know there’s also a relationship between alcohol and your immunity?

Below, we’ll look at the connection between alcohol and your immune system, how drinking can impact your body’s defenses, and what you can do to stay healthy.

Does Drinking Alcohol Weaken or Strengthen Your Immune System?

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

For some time, evidence has shown that heavy drinking can weaken your immune system. People who chronically consume moderate to high levels of alcohol appear to have a decreased ability to fight off infections, and have a higher incidence of HIV, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.

According to research, alcohol interferes with nearly all cells of the immune system, including lowering the number of white blood cells (which fight off infection). It’s still unclear exactly how this happens, but it’s believed that alcohol’s impact on the gut microbiome—the bacteria inside your digestive system—is one significant factor.

Curiously, there is also evidence that light to moderate amounts of alcohol—particularly wine and beer—may increase the amount of white blood cells in some people. In fact, there do seem to be some health benefits to small amounts of alcohol. However, these vary greatly by age, body mass, sex, and type of alcohol. All in all, if you choose to drink, your best bet is moderation.

Can Drinking Alcohol Raise Your Temperature?

There’s a story about a chef on the Titanic getting drunk before the ship sank; supposedly, the liquor raised his body temperature and kept him alive in the freezing water. The overall story is actually true, but is the part about the effects of alcohol correct?

In reality, alcohol actually impairs thermoregulation—the ability of your body to control its internal temperature. This means that if you are exposed to extreme cold when intoxicated, you are actually more likely to develop hypothermia—or low body temperature.

The reason you may look rosy and feel warm when you drink is because alcohol increases blood flow from your warm core out to your skin.

Your body does a similar thing when you exercise: you work up heat, so your body shunts blood to your skin to release it. You feel warm, but you’re actually venting out heat. This causes your body temperature to decrease—which can be dangerous if you’re unaware of it because of alcohol’s numbing and warming effect.

Read More: Why Do I Sweat When I Drink Alcohol?

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Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Viruses? Germs? Bacteria? COVID?

The short answer is, no. It’s true that ethanol (drinking alcohol) can kill viruses and bacteria at a concentration of about 60 percent or higher. However, most alcoholic beverages range from 5 percent (beer) to about 40 percent alcohol (hard liquors). This is too low a percentage to kill germs.

It’s also a different story once alcohol is inside 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 skin and surfaces. But once you ingest alcohol, even the highest proof liquors get diluted to levels far below this. This is especially true when it comes to your bloodstream: You would die of alcohol poisoning long before the concentration of alcohol in your blood was enough to kill coronavirus, or any other disease.

In other words, drinking alcohol is not an effective way to prevent disease or infection, and will likely hurt more than it helps.

Read More: Drinking More in Quarantine? Alcohol and COVID-19

Is It Bad To Drink Alcohol When You’re Sick?

Can you drink alcohol when you have a cold?

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

It’s generally best to avoid alcohol when you’re not feeling well. First, as mentioned above, alcohol depresses your immune system; you need it in top shape to help you recover quickly from a cold. Second, alcohol can interact with the components of medications you may take, such as Benadryl and acetaminophen. This puts you at risk for unnecessary side effects.

Finally, alcohol can dehydrate you, and you should be drinking more fluid if you’re sick. So all in all, you should skip the alcoholic beverages if you’re under the weather.

Check out our list of some of the best hot toddy alternatives for winter weather.

How to Not Get Sick When Drinking Alcohol

When it comes to catching a cold, or any illness, the best way to avoid getting sick when drinking is to limit your consumption, or not drink at all. If you do drink, be sure to bundle up in cold weather, even if you feel you don’t need to. Remember, alcohol can make your body feel warmer than it actually is.

As for avoiding feeling hungover or nauseous when you drink, you best bet is to know your limits. If you steer clear of binge drinking, you’ll avoid the spins, nausea, headaches, and embarrassing stories—and it’s the most surefire way to not get sick on a night out. You’ll also reduce hangover symptoms the morning after.

If you do go a little overboard, it’s best to have food in your stomach before drinking, and try to alternate each alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic one. Having food in your stomach slows the entry of alcohol into your blood. Alcohol can also dehydrate you, so consuming water or electrolytes will also help reduce hangover symptoms.

Chronic Alcohol Abuse and a Depressed Immune System

As mentioned previously, excessive alcohol consumption can reduce your immune system function over time. People who abuse alcohol are more susceptible to infections, particularly pulmonary problems such as pneumonia. If you suspect someone may be abusing alcohol, a history of respiratory infections might be an indicator. And if you are frequently ill, quitting or cutting back may help you get your health back.

Of course, changing your relationship with alcohol is often harder than it sounds. If you’d like to cut back or quit, but are struggling to do so, there are new options for finding support. Online programs like Ria Health allow you to get customized care from home, without disrupting your daily life. Access 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.

Written By:
Ria Health Team
Our experienced team is committed to transforming alcohol addiction treatment.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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