The health information in this article is provided by the columnist as an information resource only. Please consult your health care provider before making any healthcare decisions.
This time of year, we’re bombarded by ads for products that promise to alleviate symptoms of cold and flu, but before you reach for a product, let’s review why your immune system revved up those symptoms in the first place.
Our immune systems have two branches: innate and adaptive. Think of them as your diplomatic corps and your army.
When your diplomatic corps—your innate system—is healthy and strong, it can effectively handle just about any trouble it encounters. It’s “non-specific,” so it recognizes all who approach, and after gathering a bit of information, which it shares with your army, it swiftly shows the would-be invader the door. You may not even realize you’ve been visited. Coworkers are sneezing away and glaring at you because they don’t understand why you never seem to get sick. We’ll call this Mission Preferred.
Your diplomatic corps is not without weapons. Should the interloper manage to turn your lobby (your nose) into a base camp, a series of signals activates Mission Uncomfortable. Suddenly you don’t feel so well. Normal operations get temporarily suspended to divert energy and resources. You cancel dinner plans and collapse on the couch. Most invaders can’t take the heat, so your internal thermostat goes up. You go from blanket-hugging chills to blanket-tossing sweats. And you reach for the tissues to catch the flow of invaders being expelled. After a couple days, if all goes well, you start to feel better and normal life resumes.
But what happens if a few invaders slip past your diplomats?
Mission Miserable. You stay sick a few days longer. Your army—your adaptive immune system—is called to action. While your diplomats are non-specific, your army is laser-focused, and it began designing targeted weapons as soon as it was alerted that enemies were attempting entry, just in case. And now it goes to battle, and you sneeze and cough a bit longer, clearing out the battle debris. Once your army has created targeted weapons, an arsenal is formed. Even if not needed this time, that arsenal will be available immediately the next time that same enemy comes around. That’s “natural immunity.” Those naturally-acquired complex arsenals work great to protect you for a lifetime against some viruses like measles and mumps, but there are hundreds of different cold, flu, and flu-like viruses that keep changing. Your best defense against them all is to keep your diplomatic corps in prime condition.
It’s obviously more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Your symptoms are signs your immune system is working for you, and that’s good, but the lure of product-promises are tempting. Here’s where a New Attitude will help. Some products may give you the feeling that they’re helping you win the war — but they’re actually disarming your soldiers, zapping them with a stun gun, and sometimes opening the door for a Trojan horse to sneak in (secondary infection.)
Studies have shown that the use of fever-reducers inhibits the formation of antibodies and extends the duration of an infection. Also, cold and flu products come with inserts you’re likely not in the mood to read, or you’ve heard they’re just legal blather. They’re not. They should be read and heeded. A study in 2016 revealed that over the course of 13 flu seasons, there were 2,122,940 calls made to Poison Control centers in the U.S. about acetaminophen (Tylenol), cough/cold medications, and promethazine (an antihistamine) poisoning. It’s far too easy to take too much, especially for a child. Just one extra dose can lead to toxicity.
Do you have to resign yourself to misery to allow your immune system to work? Not at all. You can support your immune system and make yourself more comfortable with time-honored no-risk traditional methods: rest, hydration, steam inhalation, saline nasal flush, cold socks, and more. See these articles for more details: glutathione and flu.
Experiencing frequent or severe symptoms of infection is a clear sign your diplomatic corps needs some attention. Factors that can suppress or harm immune health include poor diet, lack of exercise, exposure to environmental toxins, stress and use of some pharmaceuticals. Genetics plays a role, but generally not on its own. It’s genetic susceptibility that dictates how much, or how little, an individual is affected by environmental factors. The good news is that your genetics are not your destiny because you can control many environmental factors. Take a look at what lifestyle factors you can change to better support your immune system, so it can more effectively deal with would-be invaders, and you can stay well.
Healthy New Year!
Bernadette Pajer is a freelance health writer, novelist and citizen journalist.