Want Higher Resistance to Infection? Stop Using Drugs and Alcohol

Woman takes beer from a fridge
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As we all learn more about respiratory infections and the ways they spread, one thing is abundantly clear: The coronavirus of 2019 is certainly not the first and will not be the last fast-spreading and dangerous virus to travel around the world.

A thoughtful person might sit themselves down at this point and consider the ways that they could increase their own resistance to illness and then possibly turn those considerations into action. If you’ve had any of these thoughts, we’d like to help you convert your musings into positive action by providing some insight into how alcohol or drugs diminish your body’s ability to resist infection.

Alcohol and Lung Health

Alcohol abuse has long been recognized as a factor in serious respiratory disease. According to a 2008 article in Alcohol Research & Health Journal, alcohol abuse increases the chance of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) three- or four-fold. If someone is suffering from COVID-19, it is ARDS that lands them on a ventilator.

You might think this increased risk only happens to a person who’s been an alcoholic for decades. Not so. The same article notes that alcohol-related disruptions of lung function can occur in young and otherwise-healthy individuals that consume excessive amounts of alcohol.

Alcohol abuse makes changes in the upper airways, the lungs themselves and in the gut where so much of the body’s immune response originates. If alcohol abuse has sapped the body’s ability to resist illness or fight a raging infection and then the drinker is exposed to COVID-19 or an even worse virus or bacteria, it could be very, very bad news for this person.

If you do drink, don’t drink every day. Limit your drinks during this time of viral threat. Or what’s far more advisable, don’t drink at all. Give your immune system all the support it needs. This is doubly true if there is a cold or flu bug making the rounds in your community.

Lung and Immune System Harm from Illicit Drugs

Illicit drugs are illegal because they are harmful. The purpose of laws forbidding the sale and possession of drugs like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or (in some areas) marijuana is to protect people who are not familiar with the harm these substances cause. Because we don’t really want a person to have to learn how bad heroin is by first becoming addicted, governments ban this (and other) substances and hope the public takes a clue from this action.

These drugs may not seem very harmful the first couple of times you use them. They may seem to improve your mood or help you cope with stress and you think they really have no damaging aftereffects. However, if you talk to a person who let their illicit drug use get out of their control, all the harmful effects that might not have shown up in those first few uses will be on full display.

Illicit drugs are damaging to both the mind and the body. Since we are at the moment talking about resisting infection here, let’s look at how illicit drugs suppress your immune system or harm your lungs, making it harder to fight off a respiratory infection like COVID-19.

Heroin

Lung infection
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Studies have shown that the use of heroin affects the body’s ability to generate T cells (also called T lymphocytes). These cells are an essential part of your immune system, a type of white blood cell that responds to viruses or bacteria which are sources of infection. One study showed that those currently using heroin and those who had recently quit using the drug suffered from suppressed immune functions. But those who sustained their sobriety recovered normal levels of immune function which is good news for those in recovery.

Heroin and other opioids also suppress the function of the lungs, which is how overdoses cause death. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids “may cause breathing to slow, block air from entering the lungs, or make asthma symptoms worse.” If lungs are already suffering from a viral infection, impeding the function of the lungs will only make the illness far more serious

Cocaine use is associated with a long list of adverse effects on the lungs.

  • Airway injury
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Pulmonary hemorrhage
  • “Crack lung”—inflammatory lung injury after smoking crack cocaine
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs)
  • Emphysema
  • Infectious pneumonia

That list should be enough to reveal the threat to lung health that results from cocaine use. The exact type of lung damage that occurs depend on which route of administration is used to consume cocaine—smoking, insufflation (snorting), injecting or other routes. The lungs suffer no matter which way cocaine is consumed.

Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine is most often smoked but may also be injected. Smoking meth, of course, directly injures the lungs, possibly causing pneumonitis (general inflammation of the lungs). One analysis of 182,000 California methamphetamine users found an increased incidence of both pneumonia and acute respiratory failure among these users when compared to the general population. However methamphetamine is consumed, the body absorbs this drug into the lungs, kidneys and liver more readily than into other organs. Therefore, no matter how it is consumed, its use is also associated with pulmonary hemorrhage, pulmonary edema and other lung trauma.

Marijuana

Airway inflammation
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When smoked, marijuana is an irritant to the throat and lungs. It causes airway inflammation, increased airway resistance and, very often among regular users, chronic bronchitis.

Smoking marijuana has also been linked to cases in which air pockets develop between the lungs and the chest wall, or in the lungs themselves. And, despite what you may have heard, marijuana use can harm the immune system, making it harder for a person to fight off infections.

Tobacco

Tobacco use causes some people to become immunocompromised, meaning that their immune system is damaged and not able to function or fight infection competently. In April 2020, a group of public health experts reviewed studies related to smoking and COVID-19 and found that smokers are more likely to develop a serious illness if they are infected with this virus.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

Another, less direct effect of drug abuse or excessive alcohol use is addiction, which, especially when prolonged, can lead to a serious deterioration in lifestyle. Loss of family, job, possessions and home follow severe addiction all too often. Homelessness and incarceration are more likely among those who are addicted and these circumstances increase the likelihood of impaired immunity and possible exposure to COVID-19 or other infections.

While there are other drugs on the illicit market than just those that are listed here, you can be sure that none of these other drugs support health and they all impair health one way or another.

So What Can You Do?

There has never been a better time to enter rehab or help someone you care about enter rehab. As you can see in the information above, alcohol, illicit drugs and tobacco are very hard on a user’s immune system, lungs and overall health. When there is a respiratory infection spreading through our society, there is no time to waste.

If you have been putting off getting help yourself or appealing to a loved one to accept your help to get into rehab, then hopefully this information helps you take action. If you can’t get a loved one to accept your help, an experienced interventionist can assist you in making this life-saving action happen. Please call us if you need assistance finding an effective and ethical interventionist.


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Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP

AUTHOR

Karen

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.