The seventeenth weekly episode of The Sobriety :60 delves into how alcohol challenges the immune system, especially during a period when the weather contributes to greater incidence of respiratory illness.
An important consideration during cold, flu and pneumonia season is alcohol use. Medical professionals, since Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1875, have known alcohol consumption impairs a drinker’s immune system. The booze doesn’t kill off the bad germs… in actuality it gives illness a playground of weakened T cells to bully.
T cells work to find and kill infected cells. An August, 2014 University of Iowa study (see related article) pinpoints a specific influenza-fighting T cell as being “exquisitely sensitive to alcohol.” Alcohol attacks the T cell immune response on two separate levels: limiting the number of cells that can fight the infection, and limiting the ability of the remaining cells to fight the cold or flu.
Previous research had demonstrated an increase in the severity of flu virus infections was due, in part, to a failure to mount a robust T cell response. The new rodent study further examines chronic drinking’s damage to CD8 T cells, finding that some functions of CD8 T cells become limited or reduced. “It is well known that chronic alcohol consumption compromises the human immune system,” explained lead researcher Kevin Legge in a news release. University of California Riverside biomedical sciences associate professor, Ilhem Messaoudi, commented on the finding: “It has also been known since the 1800’s that alcohol use disorders are associated with increased susceptibility to lung infection – both viral and bacterial – including community acquired pneumonia, tuberculosis, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Understanding the mechanisms underlying the increased susceptibility to lung infection and injury in individuals with alcohol use disorder is extremely important.”
For instance, new vaccines, more efficient at eliciting CD8 T cell responses, could be developed specifically for drinkers, especially those with the disease of alcoholism.
Alcohol abuse is also associated with increased risk of death in patients with community-acquired pneumonia despite antibiotics. As with the flu, drinkers with pneumonia see a greater incidence of bacterial buildup, delayed time to recovery, and a higher frequency of persistent lung illnesses following recovery. University of Barcelona researchers made that connection in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) two decades ago.
For a lot longer, many drinkers have uttered the words, “I’ve never been ill when I was drinking.” Fact is, they were ill – making themselves sicker, too – but just numb to the symptoms.