How to get a healthy immune system

Much depends on your genes, lifestyle, environment and social circumstances.

With the fall season around the corner, many of us will fall victim to the annual onslaught of colds, coughs or the dreaded flu.

But not everybody will be so unlucky to catch the various germs and viruses trying to attack us.

Much depends on your genes, lifestyle, environment and social circumstances.

If you have children in school, chances are they will bring home a good selection of the seasonal illnesses. A few hundred students in close contact for many hours a day make it very easy for viruses to infect most of them.

The same is true for those of us having to use overcrowded public transport or who spend most of their workday with hundreds of other individuals in large air-conditioned buildings, where viruses get blown around all day long.

From mid-September onwards, the walk-in clinics and hospital emergency departments certainly notice the marked increase in workload.

Many of the visits to the doctor are not needed or desirable. Most of these coughs and colds are self-limited illnesses, that just need a bit of time and rest. Moreover, no doctor can cure the common cold.

Consider before you go and seek medical advice for a miserable but mild illness, that, chances are, you will be exposed to a really mean virus while waiting for hours in a crowded waiting room full of sick people. Not a good idea.

If you are working from home, have no children and shop only once a week during off hours, you may be lucky to avoid any exposure all fall and winter.

If you have a healthy immune system, you may also escape most of the seasonal mild illnesses.

How do you get a healthy immune system?

It would be nice if we could choose our parents, but if you inherit a genetic weakness, then you will just have to endure a good many more illnesses than your neighbour who is endowed with all the right stuff to ward off the germs.

Secondly, you can vastly improve your immune system by getting the time-proven vaccinations against tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, polio. These vaccinations stimulate your immune system for many years, and when the life-threatening bacteria or virus wants to attack you, your body is ready to successfully fight off the illness.

Unfortunately, that is not true for the flu vaccine. That one only works for one season.

Of course, it is a no-brainer to protect your immune system by abstaining from smoking, eating junk food and any other unhealthy habits. I am always puzzled when I see people who, on one hand, eat and drink all the wrong stuff and are fully aware they do, and on the other, hand-spend small fortunes on questionable ‘health products’ in the hope they will not suffer the consequences of their destructive lifestyle.

Then there is the question of vaccination providing short-term immunity against the flu.

The arguments against are often very emotional and irrational. Yet there are some legitimate unanswered questions.

The authorities make an educated guess what kind of flu viruses will be circulating each year. They missed the boat in 2009 by failing to include the killed H1N1 in the vaccine until much later and quite a few people died prematurely as a result of having no defense or inadequate defense.

Many more survived just fine or did not get ill at all.

The problem is predicting who belongs to which risk group.

If you are elderly, your skin, bones, muscles, lungs and circulation are all on the decline, and your immune system is no exception. That is why we encourage seniors to get their flu shot.

Then there are people with diabetes and, therefore, more prone to infections, and they too would be wise to get the flu vaccine.

Young children with an immature immune system are also at increased risk.

When the H1N1 hit the Inuit population in Nunavut, many of the ones less than two years old were very sick, some died and many ended up in the pediatric intensive care units in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec for weeks on respirators.

I was involved in too many of these and I have no hesitation at all to recommend the flu vaccine to at-risk people.

Then there is the dilemma of what to do about health care workers, doctors and nurses and care aides exposing vulnerable sick people to the flu if they themselves refuse to be vaccinated.

I think it is unethical and unprofessional to knowingly go to work with the flu and risk infecting the patients, realizing some of them may die as a result.

A mask may be of some help, but is vastly inferior to the effectiveness of the flu shot.

I get mine.


Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.

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