How Do Drugs Affect (or Weaken) the Immune System?

The immune system consists of several different systems that work together to protect you from infection and filter toxins from your body.
Chronic abuse of drugs and alcohol can place a significant burden on the body that can tax your immune system. As a result, it may not function at its full capacity.

Substance Abuse and the Immune System

There can be a direct effect of alcohol or drug abuse on the immune system. Substance abuse can directly damage various components of the immune system, but the more common scenario is that chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs places a significant burden on all organ systems of the body, which results in a decrease in immune system efficiency.

For instance, chronic use of alcohol or other substances can lead to dehydration, issues with sleep and nutrition, and increased sensitivity to stress, which can affect all the organ systems in the body, including the immune system.
Chronic use of alcohol can affect the functioning of the cardiovascular system, leading to issues with the immune system.
Chronic abuse of opioids can lead to lingering issues with the respiratory system, which can weaken the immune system.
Chronic abuse of all drugs can harm the liver, which is vital in filtering out toxins from the body, and this can result in a weakened immune system.

How Does the Immune System Work?

The immune system is your body’s protection system against infection and the buildup of harmful toxins in the body.
The immune system is an overall term to describe several different bodily systems that are comprised of organs, cellular networks, and proteins. It is one of the most complex systems in your body. It operates by:

  • Neutralizing the actions of germs and other pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
  • Combating cellular changes, that can be harmful to your body.
  • Recognizing and then neutralizing other potentially harmful substances.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can disrupt the cardiovascular system, resulting in insufficient nutrients and oxygen being delivered to important organ systems in the body.
Excessive and prolonged alcohol abuse may reduce your white blood cell count, which makes it harder for your body to fight disease. A reduced white blood cell count is a sure sign of a potentially weakened immune system.
Prolonged alcohol abuse may also lead to the development of an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system begins to attack its own tissues, further weakening all systems in the body.

Continued abuse of alcohol can affect the digestive system, which can result in enzymes needed for digestion not being effectively secreted or utilized, placing a further burden on the body and making you more susceptible to disease.
Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to significant liver damage and even liver failure. The liver is responsible for the elimination of toxins from the body and storage of vitamins in the body. A severely damaged liver is a serious medical issue that will affect every other organ system in the body and make you more susceptible to disease.

Opioid Abuse

Opioid abuse can weaken the immune system through several different routes.

  • Injecting opioids like heroin and sharing needles can result in contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV, which obviously weaken the immune system.
  • Chronic opioid abuse can affect the digestive system. This can lead to improper food digestion and reduced nutrient delivery to the body, which can weaken your immune system.
  • Individuals with moderate-to-severe opioid use disorders often begin to ignore self-care, which will create a significant burden on the immune system.
  • Opioid drug abuse results in the suppression of white blood cells, which will result in a weakened immune system.
  • The long-term effects of respiratory suppression and decreased heart rate as a result of abusing opioids can weaken organ systems in the body, including the immune system.

Other CNS Depressants

Alcohol and opioids are central nervous system depressants. They slow down the functioning of the central nervous system.
Other central nervous system depressants like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other sedatives can affect your immune system functioning similarly to opioid and/or alcohol abuse.

Stimulants

Chronic abuse of stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine disrupts the functioning of the proteins that are essential in the maintenance of the immune system.

White blood cells attacking a germ

Stimulants can interfere with the production of immune system cells like white blood cells or T lymphocytes, and this can limit your immune system’s ability to fight infection.
Individuals with stimulant use disorders, like people who abuse opioids, are more likely than people without substance use disorders to contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, hepatitis, and other types of infections.

Chronic abuse of powerful stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine can lead to significant liver damage, which will disrupt the immune system.
Stimulants also adversely affect the cardiovascular system, which will have significant ramifications throughout the body, including a decrease in the efficiency of the immune system.

Other Drugs

There is an increased burden on the immune system’s ability to function properly if you abuse nearly any substance.
Even abusing substances like tobacco, caffeine, and cannabis products can place a significant burden its ability to function by affecting your immune system directly (decreasing the production of white blood cells) and influencing the function of other organs in your body.
There is an increased risk to develop numerous forms of cancer as a result of the chronic abuse of nearly any substance. This will place a significant burden on the immune system’s ability to function properly.

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Signs and Symptoms

In most cases, using medications for medicinal purposes will not significantly alter immune system function. If you are abusing any drug or alcohol (even using it recreationally according to your standards, but not using it under the supervision of a physician) and you notice any of these signs, you may have a compromised immune system:

  • Frequent diarrhea
  • Mild fever that seems to hang on
  • Joint aches
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness in the feet or hands
  • Being sensitive to light, particularly sunlight
  • A sudden unexplained change in weight (typically a loss of weight)
  • Frequent low-level infections
  • Headaches

If you experience several of these signs and you are abusing drugs or alcohol, you may be experiencing the effects of a compromised immune system.
When taking prescription medications for medical reasons and according to the instructions of your doctor, discuss the situation with your physician if you experience any of these symptoms.

Get Control

Although there are still some scattered reports that light-to-moderate alcohol use may have health benefits, physicians do not recommend that you start drinking alcohol to improve your health.
The use of any controlled substance should only be undertaken under the supervision of a physician. The use or abuse of illicit drugs should be avoided at all costs.

The most effective and safest way to avoid health problems associated with abusing drugs or alcohol is to get help for a substance use disorder. The experience of trained clinicians and those in recovery repeatedly confirms the notion that you most likely cannot control your substance abuse without professional help.
The most efficient way to address the situation and get control over your substance abuse is to seek professional help.