Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 09:05 UK

Binge drinking ups infection risk

Man with a hangover
Booze can lower the body's natural defences

Going on a drinking binge could leave you wide open to infections, as well as hangovers, work suggests.

Drinking copious amounts of alcohol in one session scuppers the immune system by knocking out proteins essential for fighting off bacteria and viruses.

In trials, some of these cytokines were still not "on duty" as long as 24 hours after the mice were dosed with alcohol.

Experts said the work in online journal BMC Immunology should serve as a warning to those who drink too much.

Don Shenker, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Concern, said: "While we all know the immediate short term effects of binge drinking, there's now more evidence emerging about how it can damage our bodies in the longer term.

The time frame during which the risk of infection is increased might be at least 24 hours
Lead researcher Dr Stephen Pruett

"The negative effect of alcohol on the immune system is proven, but many people aren't aware of the link.

"Sticking to sensible drinking guidelines of 2-3 units per day for women and 3-4 units for men increases your chance of staying healthy."

Consuming enough alcohol in a single drinking session to get drunk constitutes a "binge", and in the UK, around a third of men and women aged 16 to 24 admit to doing this at least once a week.

Immediate effects of binge-drinking include confusion, blurred vision, poor co-ordination and balance, nausea, anti-social behaviour and an increased risk of accidents.

Weakened defences

Long term, binge-drinking has been associated with impaired memory and mental performance.

The latest work by Dr Stephen Pruett, of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University in the US, shows it takes its toll on the immune system.

And alcohol's effects continue long after the party is over.

Mice given drinking water laced with ethanol were unable to make key pro-inflammatory cytokines.

At the same time, levels of one cytokine, called interleukin-10 (IL-10), that acts as a brake on the immune system, were increased.

IL-10 has an anti-inflammatory role intended to prevent the immune system going into overdrive. It helps the body avoid harmful inflammation, but can also reduce resistance to infection.

The scientists who carried out the experiments wanted to see if results previously seen in isolated cells could be repeated in living animals.

Dr Pruett said: "The time frame during which the risk of infection is increased might be at least 24 hours.

"A persistent effect of ethanol on cells is indicated, such that inhibition of the response of some cytokines occurs even after the ethanol is cleared."

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