How Does Your Immune System Work?

A person’s immune system works as the body’s protection system. It helps a person ward off infection and disease, and is responsible for filtering everything which enters the body. The immune system is comprised of cells, organs, and proteins. As the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, aside from the nervous system, the immune system is the most complex system in the body.

It works by:

  • Neutralizing pathogens (germs), such as bacteria and viruses, and getting rid of them
  • Recognizing and neutralizing harmful substances within the body
  • Fighting its own cells (self cells) which have changed (i.e. cancer cells)

How Do Drugs And Alcohol Affect The Immune System?

When our immune systems are not interrupted by harmful pathogens, bodily functions will run smoothly. But when the body encounters pathogens that are aggressive or that it has not encountered before, it can weaken the immune system. This is when illness can happen in the form of infections or disease.

The risk to the immune system is not necessarily from drugs or alcohol, but from the toll they take on the body. Many substances cause dehydration, mental or physical fatigue, and lack of food or sleep, which can result in a weakened immune system. When the immune system is down, it is at heightened risk for invasion of disease and infection.

How Does Alcohol Affect The Immune System?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that “excess alcohol consumption may lead to immune deficiency, causing increased susceptibility to certain diseases.” Prolonged alcohol abuse may cause disruptions to the digestive system, effectively damaging the cells which secrete the enzymes needed for digestion. Beyond that, long-term alcohol abuse leads to the breakdown of the liver or liver failure. The liver is responsible for the storage of vitamins in the body. Alcohol may also affect an addicted individual’s ability to store adequate amounts of protein.

Overall, prolonged alcoholism may result in autoimmunity, a phase of the immune system during which the body attacks its own tissues. Perhaps the most dangerous effect is that alcohol abuse may affect the white blood cells in the body, which are responsible for getting rid of killer white blood cells. Without this defense system, a person is at heightened risk of developing more life-threatening diseases, such as cancer.

How Other Drugs Affect The Immune System


  • As with many opioids, heroin abuse may result in addiction. When a person becomes addicted, he or she is thinking only about obtaining and taking the drug. This can cause a person to neglect personal health such as sleep and food needs, which can result in a weakened immune system. As with alcohol, heroin may also affect a person’s digestive system, in turn causing lack of proper nutrition and a weakened system.


  • The Endowment for Human Development organization states, “cocaine abusers are more likely than nonusers to suffer from HIV, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, and other infections.” This is due to the effect of cocaine abuse on an addicted individual’s immune system. Cocaine disrupts the function of a key protein system component. Without the function of this protein, the body is not as effective at fighting disease as it would normally be.

Prescription Drugs (Morphine):

  • As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, morphine works to suppress the immune system through a “brain-to-body” pathway. Morphine sets off a “chain reaction” which ultimately leads to the suppression of three different types of white blood cells. Morphine is not the only prescription drug which affects the immune system so harshly. The NIDA states that many prescription opioids weaken a person’s immune system—this coupled with risk of addiction can make physicians wary of prescribing pain relievers.

What Can You Do To Help?

Treatment remains the most effective way to help those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Patient-centered rehab facilities, like the ones we at Vertava Health can recommend, offer addicted individuals professional support and care. At our inpatient residential treatment centers, participants receive the help they need at the pace that suits them best.

If you want to learn more about our rehab centers, professional team, or need answers to questions about addiction, please contact us today at Vertava Health.

Call Vertava Health now!