How Addictive Substances Affect Your Immune System

immune system

Most people are aware of how long-term substance abuse can adversely affect both their physical and mental health by increasing the risk of developing issues like malnutrition, depression and some kinds of cancer. However, one health issue you might be less familiar with is the way drugs and alcohol can take a toll on your immune system. What should you know about this?

Addiction and Your Immune System

The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues and organs that all work in concert to fend off illnesses. A typical, healthy immune system filters everything you encounter and goes to work isolating and neutralizing anything it recognizes as foreign. A robust immune system also “learns” from the past, in that once it encounters a germ or pathogen, it will recognize and fight it more effectively in the future.

Drugs and alcohol themselves do not necessarily compromise your immune system. The issue arises from the cumulative effect substance misuse has on the body. Many longtime addicts suffer from health problems such as fatigue, lack of vital nutrients and obesity, all of which can weaken your immune system and leave you more vulnerable to infection or illness.

Binge Substance Abuse and Your Health

Binging on drugs and alcohol is a major reason addicts can get sick. Drinking or drug binges cause exhaustion and dehydration, as well as nutrient deficiencies. If you have ever experienced flu-like symptoms or even come down with a cold or infection after a binge, you have firsthand knowledge of how unpleasant this can be.

There is also evidence to suggest long-term drug and alcohol abusers are more likely to fall ill and die from diseases such as the following.

  • HIV: Drug and alcohol abusers have greater odds of contracting this disease, due to sharing drug paraphernalia and engaging in dangerous behavior such as unprotected sex.
  • Pneumonia and tuberculosis: Alcohol abusers are more likely to contract these respiratory illnesses, which are normally easily preventable, but which can be fatal to people with compromised immunity.
  • Hepatitis B and C: Needle-sharing and other impulsive habits put drug users at a higher risk for hepatitis B and C.

Substances That Impact the Immune System

Nearly all addictive substances can affect your immune system’s ability to function over time. Here are some examples of how.

  • Alcohol: Alcohol damages the liver and pancreas, which can degrade immune function and cause the body to be more susceptible to other problems as well. Alcohol also inhibits the production of a type of white blood cell that seeks and destroys viruses and cancer cells.
  • Marijuana: Smoking or vaping pot can increase the risks of upper respiratory infections. Marijuana also acts as an immune system depressant and makes it more likely that you will develop bacterial or viral infections over time. Smoking causes lung damage, which can also reduce your immune system’s ability to fight off lung infections such as bronchitis.
  • Cocaine: Snorting cocaine damages mucous membranes in the nose, lungs and throat, which in turn can lead to greater vulnerability to upper respiratory infections.

Is Your Substance Misuse out of Control?

Don’t allow addiction to take over your life. Substance abuse disorders are treatable with the appropriate medical and therapeutic interventions. Learn more about our evidence-based continuum of care, then reach out anytime to speak to one of our admissions counselors.