Drug use weakens the immune system, making it more challenging for the body to fight off infections. This article discusses drugs and how they damage the immune system.
The effects of drug use on the immune system can be easy to overlook since we can’t see the changes taking place, but the consequences can be serious.
Why is the Immune System Important?
The effects of drugs on the immune system can be long-lasting and irreversible. As a result, various health complications often accompany drug abuse and increase the risk of infection. In addition, certain drugs can exhaust your body or afflict specific organs.
When one aspect of your health is lacking, it can impair the functioning of your immune system as a whole. The consequences of an impaired immune system can range from catching frequent colds to contracting more severe viruses.
A weakened immune system is just one of the many harms of substance abuse. Fortunately, addiction treatment addresses all effects of addiction.
So if you are ready to restore your health or are worried about the health of a loved one, you should reach out for help as soon as possible. We can help you discover programs and resources in your area.
Call us today at (385) 327-7418 to discuss your options for treatment.
The Significance of the Immune System
What exactly does the immune system do? Why is it so important that it runs smoothly? The immune system protects your body from microbes or outside “invaders” such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and the chemicals or toxins that they produce.
Microbes can interfere with your cells’ normal functioning and make you sick. Many organs throughout your body, from your bone marrow and tonsils to your spleen, make immune system cells and fight infections.
Your immune system has two main parts: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. You are born with the natural immune system. Still, you develop the adaptive immune system over time as your body gets exposed to different microbes.
The two systems work together to protect you.
Innate Immune System
The innate immune system is active from the moment you are born. You can think of it as a rapid response system. It monitors the body, keeping a lookout for unfamiliar microbes.
When it recognizes an invader, it sends immune cells to engulf the foreign microbe immediately, keeping it from traveling further or multiplying.
The invader dies inside the immune cells and is no longer a threat to the body.
Acquired Immune System
The acquired immune system produces antibodies to protect your body from specific microbes. Unlike innate immune cells, antibodies develop only after your body has seen exposure to the microbe.
It can take several days for antibodies to develop. Still, after the first exposure, the antibodies will stay in your body and continue to recognize and defend against that microbe.
The acquired immune system changes throughout life as you become exposed to different microbes.
Drug use can affect both parts of your immune system. As illustrated above, even interfering with a small part of the system, such as a single protein, can significantly impact.
What Drugs Weaken Immune System Functions?
Many of the common side effects of drug use can upset the balance of your immune system. Such effects range from lack to sleep to anxiety to poor nutrition.
Certain substances can also directly suppress your immune response and increase your risk of infection.
Various drugs can affect your immune system in different ways. For example, smoking, most commonly marijuana and tobacco, irritates the lungs. This irritation makes them more vulnerable to severe infections like pneumonia.
Other drugs, like cocaine and meth, can dehydrate and lead to skin irritation, making it easier for infections to enter your body.
Several drugs can interfere with your sleep and cause exhaustion, which also weakens your immune system.
All drugs, especially alcohol, significantly affect your liver. The liver is responsible for filtering waste or toxins out of the body.
Large amounts of alcohol or other drugs can overwhelm the liver and impair its ability to process waste.
A weakened liver is a significant problem, but it can also significantly disrupt your immune system’s response.
The Risks of Injecting Drugs
It is highly possible to suffer from a weakened immune system due to heroin use. This suffering is because heroin is injectible, and those who inject drugs have an increased risk of catching viruses like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. These viruses spread through blood and other body fluids.
People who share the needles they use to inject heroin or other drugs thus have a higher chance of catching these blood-borne viruses.
Furthermore, drugs also impair judgment and lead people to engage in high-risk behaviors. Likewise, having unprotected sex with an infected partner can also spread these viruses.
About 10% of HIV diagnoses occur among people who inject drugs. In 2016, injection drug use was responsible for HIV in over 20% of cases that year for both men and women.
Drug use and addiction have been linked with HIV and AIDS since AIDS became a disease. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This virus infects specific immune cells, called T cells, essential for fighting infections and disease.
HIV lowers the number of T cells in the immune system, making it significantly more challenging for the body to fight off illnesses.
A person with a healthy immune system has a T cell count between 500 and 1,600.
When a person with HIV has a T cell count of less than 200, they are diagnosed with AIDS. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the final stage of HIV in which the body cannot fend off the disease.
However, being infected with HIV does not automatically mean that it will progress to AIDS. HIV does not have a cure, but medications exist to prevent and manage it before it progresses.
Continuing drug use while being treated for HIV can cause further complications. People with HIV may find it even longer to recover from alcohol, marijuana, and other recreational drugs.
Certain HIV medications may also affect the body’s ability to break down other drugs so that they can boost the level of drugs in your system to a dangerous point.
This risk demonstrates the importance of getting treatment that focuses on treating health problems and stopping drug use in unison.
Hepatitis is another viral infection commonly spread through sharing needles and thus associated with drug use.
It causes liver inflammation, which leads to painful swelling, irritation, and sometimes severe damage. As mentioned, a healthy liver is vital to your immune system.
There are several types of hepatitis, each with its way of spreading, and each needs different treatments.
Hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) spread through sharing needles. HBV can also transmit through risky sexual behavior linked to drug use.
This route of infection is less common with HCV. In addition, there are medications to treat both types and a vaccine to prevent HBV.
However, the severity of the virus can differ significantly. Some people can recover without treatment. Others take medicine for the rest of their lives and require liver failure and cancer monitoring.
Drugs may exacerbate the effects of hepatitis for substance abusers since drug and alcohol use can directly damage the liver in other ways.
Those infected with such viruses can look and feel fine for years and may not even be aware of the infection.
They can still pass it on to others without realizing it, demonstrating how addiction can make someone a danger to themselves and others.
Direct Effects on the Immune System
Research into the effects of drugs on the immune system may explain why some might have a weakened immune system due to cocaine use.
In the above examples, catching viruses has less to do with the actual effects of the drugs themselves and more to do with the behaviors and conditions surrounding drug use.
However, one study suggests that cocaine abusers, in particular, may be more likely to suffer from infections because of the drug itself.
Although all drugs can cause behaviors like poor nutrition and unsafe sex, cocaine may have a direct biological effect that can decrease the immune system.
In the study results, cocaine appeared to interfere with a critical component of the immune system, the protein IL-6. This protein helps trigger the release of other immune system components when your body detects an infection to isolate and neutralize the threat.
If this response is disrupted, your body cannot fight infection as effectively as it should.
The study participants who used cocaine showed a weaker IL-6 response than those who did not use cocaine.
This result suggests that people who regularly abuse cocaine directly harm their immune systems with their drug use. Cocaine appeared to impair the IL-6 response for at least 4 hours.
The response may return to normal after that time. However, even a few hours is enough for an infection to take hold in a weakened immune system.
This research could help explain the high infectious disease rates among drug abusers. However, it also serves as a reminder that the consequences of drug abuse are vast and more complex than they may seem on the surface.
Restoring Your Health
The adverse effects of drugs on the immune system are seemingly endless. Your immune system works to protect you from everything, from the common cold to fatal infectious diseases.
So, when it cannot properly do its job, you open yourself up to an array of health consequences beyond the immediate effects of drug use.
In very severe cases, drug use can lead to the contraction of viruses that attack the immune system, eventually making it impossible to fight off infections.
When your health becomes compromised by drug abuse, it’s crucial to seek treatment as soon as possible. However, treatment is not just about stopping drug use.
Effective substance abuse treatment is about improving a person as a whole. It can help you stay sober and give you the resources to regain your health and address any other issues that can hinder your recovery.
Reach Out to a Specialist for Help
If you are worried about what continued drug use means for your health or the health of a loved one, don’t hesitate to reach out. Addiction treatment can help you repair your health and regain control.
No matter your circumstances, there is help for you, and we can help you find it. Contact us at (385) 327-7418 for more information on addiction treatment near you.
- Drug Use and Viral Infections (HIV, Hepatitis) DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (nih.gov)
- HEALTH – Cocaine May Compromise Immune System, Increase Risk of Infection (ehd.org)
- The Immune System | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Drug and Alcohol Effects on the Immune System – HIV (va.gov)
- Crack vs. Cocaine: What’s the Difference? – A Better Today Recovery Services (abtrs.com)
- Cocaine Inpatient Rehab Treatment Program – A Better Today Recovery Services (abtrs.com)