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Can Addiction Make You More Vulnerable to Illness?

woman feeling sick

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it’s important to keep in mind that it can dramatically affect both your physical and your psychological health. Individuals with drug and alcohol abuse problems are at significant risk of other health problems. So, the short answer is that, yes, addiction makes you more vulnerable to illness.

The longer answer is that the reasons behind this are complex and interplay with a range of factors. Depending on genetics, upbringing, and environment, someone who is fully clean and sober might actually be more vulnerable to illness than someone who is addicted to a hard drug. However, the person who is addicted is always more vulnerable to illness than they would be if they weren’t using drugs and alcohol.

The following article will go into why, briefly looking at biology, vulnerability factors, and mental health.

Substance Abuse Overworks the Immune System

The immune system is the most important factor impacting whether you get sick not following exposure to germs or bacteria. It’s made up of white blood cells and immune systems in the lungs, gut, and bloodstream. This system responds to and fights off infections so you stay healthy.

And, it does so in two different ways, by directly fighting off infections and by adapting to previous infections and responding to that infection more quickly. That latter part is why kids are more likely to get colds than adults, because the adults have adapted to fight off the infection.

It’s also important for drug and alcohol abusers, because both drugs and alcohol can result in an immune system response. This means that your immune system kicks onto action and depletes resources every time you drink or use, meaning you’re less equipped to fight off an actual infection.

Drugs and Alcohol Suppress the Immune System

It’s also important to keep in mind that drugs and alcohol suppress the immune system. However, the exact amount and what they do will depend a lot on what you’re using and how much of it. Opioids and amphetamines can suppress the immune system, sometimes within a session of using them. That immunosuppression can last 10-45+ hours after use. This means that heavy and repeat users will live in a state of almost constant immunosuppression, basically meaning they are functionally immunocompromised.

That puts you at significantly greater risk of catching common infections and diseases, like pink eye, ringwork, the common cold, and deeper secondary infections in the lungs. It also means you’re more at risk of more serious illnesses if you’re exposed to them. For example, if you go to jail or spend time in prison, risks of catching tuberculosis become especially high.

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Substance Abuse Damages Immune Cells

The more you drink and use, the more likely it is that you’re damaging immune cells. That’s especially prevalent in the gastrointestinal tract and the lungs. Here, smoke, inhales chemicals, and swallowed substances all irritate the lining of the mouth, esophagus, the lungs, the trachea, and the gastrointestinal tract.

That also happens to be where most of your immune cells are. Over time, immune cells start to damage and even die – resulting in significantly reduced immune efficacy.

It also puts you at risk of chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and chronic lung diseases. Even heavy alcohol users are at significantly higher risk of developing lung conditions, and that’s because the immune cells in the lungs are damaged.

man sitting on a couch  feeling sick

Long-term damage to immune cells also results in a permanently depressed immune system, although it may recover after several years without substance abuse. That puts you at significantly higher risk of catching the common cold and then of acquiring a secondary (and worse) infection as the infection moves deeper into the body. For example, if you catch the common cold more often, you have a higher number of chances of developing a more serious secondary infection – and your ability to fight off that secondary infection is reduced as well. That’s so significant that you may be 300-700% more likely to develop a lower respiratory infection if you abuse drugs or alcohol.

A weakened immune system also comes into play in:

  • You catch more illnesses
  • Illnesses last longer
  • Being sick is more severe
  • You’re more prone to infection and bacterial infection
  • You get tired or fatigued when sick
  • Even small scratches and cuts may require medical attention
  • You commonly have stomach infections and upset

You’ll also be more at risk of serious infection, which makes things like travel much more risky.

Extra risks for the Elderly

Substance abuse increases your risks of infection. However, the older you are, the higher those risks are.  People over 65 have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs such as opiates, meaning that they have more side-effects and impacts to the immune system. As a result, 6-11% of all senior hospital admissions and 14% of emergency room visits are related to drug or alcohol abuse. That comes into play with increases in falls, sickness, infection, nutritional deficiencies, and other problems


If you’re vulnerable to substance use disorders you’re likely also vulnerable to illness. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study mapped trauma experiences under the age of 16 to increases in vulnerability to substance use disorder, physical illness, and mental health disorder. It holds true that many of the risk factors overlap, including stress, trauma, and poor mental health. This means that in addition to negatively

Getting Help

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Substance use disorders can harm every part of your life. That’s true no matter what your age is. Abusing drugs and alcohol will harm your mental health, your physical health, and your social life. And, that harm can be permanent, if you cause enough damage. However, in most cases, you can expect your immune system to return to health within about 2 years of quitting drugs and alcohol.

Here, it’s important to ensure that you get help. A professional drug or alcohol addiction treatment center can help you to identify and treat the underlying causes behind addiction so you can move forward, improve your quality of life, and reduce the chances of relapse so you can stay in recovery.

If you or a loved one is seeking help for alcohol or other substance abuse, contact us at Stairway Resource Center today. At Stairway Resource Center we provide a 60 to 90-day outpatient program that takes place in an engaging and supportive community setting. We offer dual diagnosis treatment and daily group and individual therapy for our clients, in addition to fun community-based events and activities.

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Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken in place of medical advice. Before making any decisions regarding your health, please consult your doctor. The staff at Stairway Resource Center develops a custom treatment plan for each of our patients. Specific medical advice will be provided to our patients by our professional providers while in our care.