alcohol-the-immune-system-during-covid-19

Alcohol and The Immune System During COVID-19

The correlation between alcohol and the immune system has long been studied by clinicians to understand the effects that alcohol has on the immune system.  Ultimately, studies have shown that alcohol is known to impair the body’s ability to fight infection, contribute to a greater likelihood of cancer, and more.  With COVID-19 coming into play it’s more important than ever to keep your immune system strong.  Find out how excessive alcohol consumption can make you more susceptible to COVID-19.

It’s a sad truth that excessive alcohol consumption affects many in their lifetime. At any one time, over 7% of American adults suffer from alcohol addiction. It’s well-documented that such addiction can lead to liver failure and heart problems, amongst numerous mental health issues.

Yet, many are surprised that drinking alcohol can also make you more susceptible to viruses such as COVID-19. If you drink alcohol to excess, your immune system will not function as well as it should. While the exact mechanisms are unknown, it’s known that excessive alcohol consumption suppresses your body’s immune response.

But to understand the relationship between these two, understanding the broader relationship between alcohol and the immune system will answer many of those questions. So let’s take a look at what excessive alcohol consumption does to make you more susceptible to COVID-19.

Part 1: Drinking Alcohol and the Immune System

Alcohol is known to cause inflammation in the body, leading to an immune deficiency. Drinking alcohol to excess weakens your immune system and makes you more prone to COVID-19, and it also lengthens its duration. Drinking alcohol in excess may also cause stomach problems, liver damage, pancreatitis, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, and stroke due to blood flow loss and low blood pressure.

Your immune system’s job is to help your body determine which cells are healthy or unhealthy. Your immune system protects you from harmful threats such as viruses and bacteria. It consists of several different types of white blood cells and proteins and some other components that protect you from harmful infections, such as COVID-19.

It also helps to fight cancerous tumors and helps to prevent an overgrowth of scar tissue in wounds. However, overconsumption of alcohol can impair the function of the immune system and weaken it.

How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Immune System?

So how does it do this? Below are some of how excessive drinking affects your immune system:

It Impairs Your Ability to Fight Infections

Your white blood cells rely on oxygen to enable them to fight viruses and bacteria. If they are operating without enough oxygen, then they are unable to destroy harmful invaders.

Alcohol can also interfere with your body’s response to infection by inhibiting cytokines’ production. These are proteins that help communication between cells, disrupting red blood cells’ ability to transport adequate amounts of oxygen around the body.

It Can Lead to a Loss of Memory

Alcohol may affect how you remember things, even when you’re not drinking. Scientists have found that sulfites, antioxidant preservatives most often used as a food additive in alcoholic drinks, contribute to Alzheimer’s disease by making specific proteins damaged. Studies on lab rats have shown that alcohol impairs the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Chemical Imbalance

The immune system is susceptible to even small changes in the body’s chemical balance. Long-term alcohol abuse can trigger autoimmune disorders, such as insulin-dependent diabetes and liver disease.

Because excessive drinking causes the immune system to produce more autoantibodies than usual, it is responsible for attacking healthy cells within the body. This behavior will end up leading to organ damage or failure.

After you have consumed alcohol, the body experiences a rush of hormones supposed to raise your immune system against infections and viruses. Once the alcohol wears off, you will weaken your immune defenses. Being in this state leaves you more susceptible to infections and viral attacks, such as COVID-19.

Attacks the White Blood Cells

Consuming alcohol decreases the activity level of T cells, also known as “killer” cells. These are specialized white blood cells which plays a critical role in defending your body against dangerous organisms like viruses and bacteria. T cells help to fight off infections by creating inflammation at targeted locations.

This inflammation works to kill pathogens and infected cells. However, excessive drinking can decrease the production of T cells which results in a weaker immune system.

Decreased Efficacy of Interferon

You are drinking alcohol in excess decreases the effectiveness of Interferon. Your immune system produces this protein in response to an infection or virus.

Interferon causes your body to be less able to fight off infections, including COVID-19. Your ability to reduce the spread and growth of the virus decreases, meaning your chances of contracting illnesses such as COVID-19 increase.

Increases Your Chances of Developing Cancer

The overconsumption of alcohol can weaken your immune system, which will make you more susceptible to developing cancer. It is because many types of cancer occur when cells grow out of control and multiply. Alcohol can damage DNA in the body, making it easier for cells to mutate and become cancerous.

Immune Cells are Less Able to Regulate Inflammation

Once a wound has healed, excess alcohol can impair the ability of your immune system’s macrophages, also known as “scavenger” cells, to remove excess scar tissue. This process means that any injuries or cuts will heal at a slower rate.

Impairs Your Ability to Fight Respiratory Infections

Drinking alcohol can impair phagocytes’ function, another type of scavenger cell critical in fighting viral and bacterial infections that affect your respiratory system. It can also damage the cells responsible for producing mucus to keep your respiratory system clean and free of debris. As with macrophages, excessive drinking can also lessen their effectiveness when it comes to removing excess tissue.

Causes Liver Damage

Suppose you have been drinking lots over an extended period. In that case, you might develop severe liver problems and liver failure.

The average liver can process about one unit of alcohol per hour, equivalent to a glass of wine or a pint. Any more than this and your body will become saturated. It won’t be able to process the alcohol in your bloodstream, meaning that it will begin damaging other body parts, including your immune system.

Causes Heart Damage

The risk of developing heart problems is also an issue for those who drink to excess. Alcohol raises triglycerides in the blood, which can block arteries and cause problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

Excessive drinking can also damage your arteries’ lining, making it easier for plaque to build up and increase your chances of cardiovascular diseases.  The result is that the immune system is likely to weaken over time and cause several health issues beyond heart failure.

Causes Stomach Ulcers

If you drink regularly, you are at higher risk of developing an ulcer in the lining of the stomach or esophagus, or even cancer within either area. It is because alcohol increases the acidity in your stomach, increasing the risk of developing an ulcer.

As a result, digestive issues can lead to immune system issues. Your body isn’t getting the right nutrients and becomes weaker over time.

Creates a Dependent Personality

Your risk of developing alcohol addiction increases with every drink you consume. Alcohol makes you feel pleasure by releasing dopamine, a hormone you produce when you accomplish something, such as eating or winning a race. This rush of dopamine can give you a “high” feeling that makes it enjoyable for some people to drink often.

However, the body builds up a tolerance so that you need to drink more to get the same feeling as last time after a while. This tolerance it easy for someone’s drinking habits to develop into an addiction.

This lack of inhibition can cause you to do things you wouldn’t do most of the time, thus putting your immune system at higher risk.

Alcohol and the Immune System: What are the Symptoms to Look Out For?

There are several symptoms that your immune system may give off to warn you that it is weakening. 

These include:

  • Tiredness and fatigue getting progressively worse
  • Chronic yeast infection that fails to disappear
  • Chronic UTIs and bladder infections
  • Visible rashes and hives on the skin
  • Long-term respiratory infections such as colds, flu, or other respiratory infections don’t seem to go away due to your immune system’s lowered ability to fight them off.
  • Sore throat or other types of infections that often affect the throat may become more frequent.

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  • The appearance of sores in your mouth, a sign of a weakened immune system, cannot fight off the virus that causes them. (Herpes)
  • Bleeding gums are also signs of an immune system that cannot fight off diseases or infections. (Gingivitis and periodontal disease)
  • Chronic or recurring conditions: Examples include Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative colitis, and gastric problems caused by an over-proliferation of cells in your gastrointestinal tract, which results in inflammation and irritation.

Part 2: COVID-19 and Alcoholism

Remember, this isn’t just an immunity issue. Other elements can increase your chances of catching COVID-19 due to excessive alcohol consumption. 

Increased Exposure

Many who drink alcohol to excess rely on others’ help and support and cannot self-isolate. As vulnerable individuals, they regularly contact carers, friends and family, and other support networks. Regardless of their vaccination status, these individuals come into regular contact with other vulnerable adults, so the chances of spreading the illness are high.

Not only that, but those who drink alcohol to excess may feel more inclined to engage in unsafe social activity, irrelevant of any laws that already exist where they live. Whether it’s at the local bar or in an outdoor space, one’s inhibitions decrease when intoxicated. In the case of some, this can lead to spreading through physical contact, which they could otherwise avoid if the individual could refrain during sobriety.

The nature of drinking alcohol to excess also makes it more probable that many will drink away from home. For example, some may choose to spend their leisure hours at ‘clubs’ and ‘bars’ where there is an increased chance of exposure to illness.

Some may choose to drink at home with others. Since prolonged exposure to a virus such as COVID-19 (including those addicted to alcohol) can spread infections in healthy people and those with immune deficiency, this activity is risky.

Part 3: How Can You Decrease Your Risk?

Despite the damaging effects of alcohol on the immune system, it is still possible to decrease your risk of contracting COVID-19 and other viral infections by reducing the amount you drink. Understandably, this isn’t easy for everyone to do.

Decreasing Risk for People Without Addiction

Those who find themselves drinking to excess through circumstances such as working from home will be a more comfortable journey to sobriety. But you shouldn’t give up one day and never drink again. You may even uncover some unwelcome illnesses and personality changes if you do.

If you aren’t addicted, remember that alcohol in moderation is medical advice that you should obey. At the least, you should work towards minimizing your intake to the recommended number of units a week and sticking to drinks that are proven to have health benefits.

Suppose you understand you have an addictive personality and notice a clear pattern of increased consumption. In that case, you should seek help straight away.

Depending on your personality, understand the value that your friends and family bring to the experience. There’s a high chance that your self-regulating sibling makes a better voice of reason than your drinking partner when regulating your intake. They can also help distract you when the temptations are there.

Quick Tips

  1. Wherever you are, stay away from touching your face much. Avoiding handshakes and other physical contacts may be considered rude, but this is still a good idea. Whether it’s purchasing an item in a shop or engaging in the modern fist or elbow-bump, any form of contact can transmit illness, so always avoid touching your face.
  2. If you have to shake hands or otherwise touch others, always wash your hands before and afterward. It will reduce the chances of spreading the illness from one person to the next. Plus, it’s a good habit to get into anyway, since a YouGov poll suggested 40% of Americans don’t wash hands after using the toilet!
  3. When cooking for yourself, try to use a kitchen utensil that won’t touch other surfaces, such as a knife or pan. It will prevent the spread of pathogenic bacteria and other harmful organisms from one body to another.
  4. If possible, it is always better to stay away from public spaces as much as possible. There is an increased risk of your chances of exposing yourself to colds and flu viruses.
  5. If you need to go out in public, try not to expose your mouth by coughing or sneezing into your hands. Instead, cover your mouth using a tissue or sleeve if you don’t already have a cold or flu virus.
  6. Avoid sharing drinks and other items, such as cutlery, that could transfer germs even inside your own home. It is best to make your coffee or use your containers and cutlery if possible. If you need to do so, be sure to wash them straight away.

Decreasing Risk for People With Addiction

For those already seeking support or who may need it, the advice is very different. It’s essential not to become teetotal overnight, or you will do your body more harm than good. Like any addiction, seek the advice of a professional who can put a program in place for you to ensure the safest route to recovery.

Take It Slow

You need to maintain a robust, healthy immune system to protect yourself from infections such as COVID-19. Cut down on your alcohol consumption over time, take it slow, and always seek a doctor who can advise you on how best to do so. You may be prescribed medication to help these cravings.

Post-Recovery

Ensure that after your recovery finishes, you stay away from drugs and alcohol altogether. Suppose you have finished detoxing or been in rehab. In that case, there’s a good chance people will give you gifts at your leaving party and even think it’s OK for you to drink alcohol during the day due to celebrations.

They may have the best intentions, and you may not want to offend anyone. Still, they might not be aware that this could set off a relapse into addictive behavior.

Thus, always make sure you are in the company of others who can support you. Ensure that you are not in a position that makes you more susceptible to catching COVID-19, worse, further addiction problems.

Short-Term Advice

If you’re looking for short-term fixes that will help you stay safe, we’ve listed a couple below. These should tide you over until you seek professional advice and also apply throughout recovery.

Keep Your Distance

If you are addicted to alcohol and think you may have contracted a virus, stay away from others in public until you know for sure. This way, you will be able to decrease the risk of spreading it to others as well.

Self-Control

Self-control: Remember that no matter how much of a good time you’re having in public when drinking, practice self-control. If you feel like your inhibitions are slipping away and you feel a cough coming on, don’t approach others without washing your hands or covering your mouth.

Part 4: How Do You Know If You Have COVID-19?

The symptoms of a COVID-19 infection are very similar to many cold and flu viruses. Examples of common viruses include the common cold, influenza, and pneumonia. Symptoms may also be mistaken for that of other respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis or coeliac disease.

they include:

  • A persistent cough that doesn’t fade away.
  • High fever lasts more than three days without high-dose antibiotics treatment. However, fever can last up to 14 days with treatment, so this is not always an indication that you have COVID-19.
  • Coughing up phlegm which is discolored (greenish or yellow)
  • A sore throat that worsens after coughing and seems to have no other cause. A sore throat can indicate tonsillitis caused by COVID-19.
  • Mild chest pain after coughing or deep breathing. If your chest feels sore when you inhale deeply, this could be a sign of pneumonia. A viral infection may also cause difficulty in breathing due to congestion in your lungs, but this can also cause wheezing. Seek medical attention if it turns chronic.
  • You are coughing up blood or having shortness of breath. If you have a cough that produces blood, you need to see a doctor straight away.
  • Most often, a dry or sore throat is not severe enough to warrant medical attention but does have unusual symptoms such as triggering an itch on your tongue.
  • A mild or severe headache that’s not come from a viral infection. If it does occur with a viral infection, it can be a general malaise rather than a particular headache. This type of headache can be associated with migraine symptoms too.
  • Fever at any time that becomes more pronounced at night and doesn’t respond to standard treatment.

Alcohol and COVID-19

As you can see, alcohol does affect the body’s ability to fight off infections such as COVID-19 and reduce the efficacy of the vaccine itself. The facts are worrying, but you can make a positive change in your drinking habits if you know the consequences.

Many people will have their reasons for staying away from alcohol. It’s important to remember that decreasing your intake or cutting it out altogether is up to you.

With this in mind, always remember the relationship between alcohol and the immune system. Think about what you stand to lose by not taking the steps needed to decrease your chances of contracting COVID-19 and other illnesses related to excessive alcohol consumption. Your immune system could be compromised forever.

If you need support in reducing your alcohol consumption, get in touch today and let us help you turn your life around.

Sources

  1. Nall, R., MSN, CRNA. (2019, September 19). How Alcohol Is Linked to Memory Loss. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/alcohol-and-memory-loss
  2. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, February 14). Phagocyte. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/phagocyte
  3. Ballard, J. (2020, January 30). 40% of Americans don’t always wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Retrieved from https://today.yougov.com/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2020/01/30/hand-washing-soap-poll-survey
  4. How to Protect Yourself & Others. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html