How Does Booze Affect Your Immunity to Colds?

By May Wilkerson 09/14/15

Chronic, heavy alcohol use or recurring episodes of binge drinking can affect your immune system.

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It’s that time of year to start thinking about how to ward off the common cold. Will booze do the trick? Or make it worse? It depends how much you drink.

According to various studies from the past two decades, binge drinking can make you more susceptible to the common cold and other infections, whereas moderate drinking may actually help prevent colds.

Chronic, heavy alcohol use or recurring episodes of binge drinking can actually affect your immunity to disease. In addition to causing other health problems, binge drinking can eventually change how your body responds to infecting pathogens. For one, it can reduce T cells, the white blood cells that protect your body from infection.

Alcohol can also impact inflammation, a crucial part of the body’s reaction to injury or infection. The body becomes inflamed to help immune cells travel to the infection site. According to one recent study, in the 20 minutes after a session of binge drinking, people had developed higher than normal levels of inflammation in their body. But two hours later, that inflammation had actually dropped below the original levels.

As their blood alcohol level dropped, participants also had lower numbers of a form of white blood cells known as “phagocytes” and other “killer” cells that help protect the body from disease. A 2014 study on binge-drinking mice also found lower numbers of protective cells in mice post heavy-intoxication. These findings suggest that even just one session of binge drinking could raise your risk of catching a viral infections, like the common cold.

However, moderate drinking—one drink a day for women, two for men—may have the opposite impact on the immune system. In a 1993 study, researchers found that participants who had one or more glasses of alcohol a day were less likely to catch a cold. But this was only true for non-smokers. Cigarette smokers are more likely to get sick, regardless of how much they drink.

In a study from 2002, wine drinkers were found to catch fewer colds than people who didn’t drink at all. This was especially true for red wine drinkers. People who drank more than 14 glasses of wine per week were least likely to have been sick in the past year. Beer and hard liquor, however, didn’t seem to have any impact on whether or not people got colds.

Moderate drinking may also help the body build its immune system over time. A 2014 study on rhesus monkeys found that monkeys who consumed moderate amounts of booze responded better to a vaccine than monkeys who abstained, or who drank heavily. It’s possible that moderate drinking could produce the same effect in humans.

Another factor to consider is that colds can be easily transmitted in a social environment, like a bar. So next time you’re sick, consider kicking back with one or two glasses of red wine instead of hitting the local dive for a round of tequila shots.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.