Since mid-Fall TV commercials have been trumpeting the horrors of the "flu season". "It's never too soon to begin fighting this year's bug" they blare. Public health announcements urge us to get our "yearly flu shot", as if this is something we've got permanently scheduled in our Blackberries. All the leading over-the-counter pain medications offer special seasonal "flu" mixtures, and their ads deluge daytime and prime-time broadcasting.
For the health consumer, namely us, it seems as if this annual "war on the flu" is received wisdom. We're just defenseless human beings at the mercy of the all-powerful flu virus.
What's wrong with this picture?
What's never mentioned in the "flu warning" marketing is the versatility and adaptability of our remarkable immune system. We're the lucky owners of a built-in state-of-the-art biowarfare system, on-the-job 24/7 to combat microscopic foreign invaders of our health and well-being. Once our immune system has detected a foreign protein it mounts an immediate defense, attacking and destroying the alien molecules. And, the memory of that particular invader is permanent, enabling a future immune response to be swift and effective.1
The big issue with influenza is that new strains appear each year. We've never encountered these germs before. But, the whole basis and strength of our immune system is flexibility. It is specially designed to respond quickly to new attackers. And, for the most part, it does this very, very well.
Of course, no one wants their dinner companion to sneeze in their plate of pasta, as Elaine did on an infamous episode of "Seinfeld". Through a typical cascade of unfortunate events, Jerry's and George's comedy pilot was almost scuttled because the network executive was Elaine's date, and he got violently ill by being on the receiving end of her blast of micro-bugs.
In the real world, our immune systems can be weakened due to life habits, circumstances, and stress. Stress is a notorious compromiser of immune defenses.2 And, of course, being human, there's plenty of stress from dawn to dusk. If worry and anxiety pile on top of not-enough-sleep or sub-optimal nutrition, getting sick is a pretty likely outcome. So, developing and maintaining healthy habits of living and successful strategies for managing stress is really the key.3
If you do the simple things that keep you healthy and well, in the winter months you can pretty much "let the flu go around you". You can be confident, knowing you've done the work to fight off the latest flu threat. Someone else's germs are their germs, not yours. If your immune system is on the job, you're far less likely to "catch" something.
And, even if you do succumb, you've got a much better chance of getting well again quickly.
1Sompayrac L: How the Immune System Works, 2nd ed. Blackwell, 2002.
2Wein H:Stress and disease - new perspectives. NIH Word on Health, October 2000.
3The Truth About Your Immune System - What You Need To Know. Harvard Health Publications, 2007.