Alcohol, tobacco and the immune system

It’s common knowledge that both tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption are linked to a number of diseases, such as cardiovascular (heart) disease, respiratory failure, liver disease, and several types of cancer. However, many people are unaware that both habits can weaken the immune system and potentially increase the risk of contracting some infectious diseases, like the flu, pneumonia, and even COVID-19—particularly in older adults.

Tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption can impair immune system function

A healthy immune system is needed to help fight infection from pathogens, protect against harmful substances in the environment, and detect and attack abnormal (potentially cancerous) cells in our bodies. These functions rely on the many specialised cells of the immune system.

As we grow older, the number and function of these immune cells can start to decline; tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption can accelerate this. Declining immune function can make us more vulnerable to some infectious diseases, lead to damage to healthy cells, and increase the risk of some cancers.

How excessive alcohol consumption affects the immune system

Excessive alcohol consumption can alter several aspects of the immune system, such as:

An icon of a microscope looking at cells
  • Physical barriers. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the cells lining our airways and gut. Damage to these barriers can contribute to an increased risk of infection.
  • Inflammation control. High alcohol concentrations in tissues (e.g., liver and lungs) can trigger the release of chemicals that may promote chronic inflammation and suppress the release of antioxidants (chemicals that help to reduce damage to cells and tissues).
  • Immune cells. Excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with the production, function, and communication between immune cells. It can also suppress the release of chemicals needed to direct these cells to sites of infection. These changes can lead to delays in clearing an infection, potentially increasing the risk of tissue damage and complications.

There are a number of factors that can influence how the immune system responds to alcohol including age and sex as well as the type, amount and frequency of consumption.

How tobacco smoke interacts with the immune system

Within seconds of inhaling smoke from a cigarette, harmful chemicals travel through the body, making their way towards vital organs, tissues, and cells within the body including those involved in immune responses.

Toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause an imbalance of cells within the immune system. Following exposure, the production and activity of some cell types increases, while the number and function of other cell types may decline. This imbalance can lead to chronic inflammation that damages immune cells and tissues, which can further suppress immune system function and inrease the risk of infection.

What can be done to prevent further damage?

If you’re concerned about tobacco or alcohol-related adverse health concerns, please be assured that there are lifestyle changes that may help prevent further damage.

Important lifestyle changes to make include:


  • Quitting smoking and the use of all other tobacco-containing products. Please consult a healthcare professional about ways to quit smoking.


  • Limiting alcohol consumption as per Australian National Guidelines:
  • Healthy adults should limit themselves to fewer than 10 standard drinks per week, and no more than 4 in any one day.
  • Older adults with existing health issues should follow advice from their healthcare professionals.
  • If you are unsure of how much is safe to drink, remember this general rule: the less alcohol consumed, the lower the risk of alcohol-related harm to the body.


  • Prioritising other healthy behaviours that can help support immune system function and reduce the risk of infection, and some other diseases such as:
  • staying active
  • getting enough quality sleep
  • keeping up to date with health checks and immunisations
  • managing stress
  • eating a balanced diet

The above information is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.

NP-AU-NA-WCNT-210002 Date of GSK Approval: June 2021

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