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Alcohol and the Immune System

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Immune System

By: S. Rennie, LPN

The affects of alcohol on the immune system is probably one of the least known and appreciated consequences of excessive alcohol intake in society. Over time, the alcohol can directly suppress various immune responses and studies are now showing an increased occurrence of a number of infectious diseases.1 This disease increase is regarded as immunodeficiency caused by alcohol abuse with organ damage, such as alcoholic liver disease, and is linked to alcohol-triggered autoimmunity in which the immune system begins to attack ones own body tissues.2 In addition, many with liver disease will also suffer from malnutrition which compromises the immune systems capacity to resist infection.3

An abbreviated explanation on how it works: It's like an internal 'army' or 'police force' inside your body that protects you from foreign invasion. It identifies the foreign invaders and attacks and kills them. Foreign invaders can be bacteria, viruses and even cancer cells. The body sends out the army, which consists of many types of white blood cells and their helpers, to attack and engulf the invader. Since alcohol can reduce the production and effectiveness of these cells, the army available to fight is much smaller.1,2,3

Evidence supports a direct link between alcohol consumption and certain bacterial infections.1 Alcohol abusers have increased susceptibility to bacterial pneumonia and are more than twice as likely to die from pneumonia. Further studies now show that a high percentage of pneumonia cases were from alcohol abusers that had never been given the diagnosis of alcoholism previously.2 Other bacterial infections predominant in alcoholism are septicemia (infection in the blood usually from pneumonia or urinary tract infection), peritonitis (abdominal infection), lung abscess, cellulitis (skin infection) and meningitis, which is an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.2

Tuberculosis, or TB, is an infection that has increased incidence and severity in alcoholics. The percentage of cases range from 16% to 35% in patients that are alcohol abusers, depending on the population.2

HIV infection, which leads to AIDS in later stages, has become one of the great epidemics with millions infected worldwide. While transmission is primarily through sexual contact, alcohol abusers are more likely to engage in risky sex practices compared to non-abusers. A group of HIV positive drug abusers were studied for several years those who drank heavily had significantly more abnormalities in their T-lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell that fights infection.2

Hepatitis C (HCV) infections occur in about 10% more of the population but no appreciable difference seen in Hepatitis B (HBV) infections with drinkers and non-drinkers.2

Autoimmune disorders arise when the 'army' of immune cells becomes 'confused' and begins to attack their own tissues, organs or systems. This is mostly seen within the liver but is not restricted to this area. A recovering alcoholic can overcome this but if they resume drinking the episodes can be more severe with lower quantities of alcohol for each subsequent occurrence.2

One drink (the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 ounce of hard liquor) does not appear to harm the immune system but three or more drinks do. Damage to the immune system is in direct proportion to the quantity of alcohol consumed.4


References

  1. 1. Roselle, Gary A. Alcohol and the immune system. Alcohol Health & Research World. Winter, 1992.
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0847/is_n1_v16/ai_13364229

  2. Alcohol and the Immune System. 10th Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health.
    Secretary of Health and Human Services. June, 2000. pp. 214-239
    http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/10report/chap04b.pdf

  3. Foster, Ray. The Immune System. Newstart Healthcare. Updated April 9, 2006
    http://www.newstarthealthcare.com/article.php?id=73

  4. Tips for Boosting the Immune System. Four Habits that Weaken the Immune System. Environmental Law Centre.
    http://www.elc.org.uk/pages/healthimmunesystem.htm

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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