Overview of the Immune System
The immune system is a specialized system in our body that functions chiefly to protect us from falling sick by fighting against infection-causing bacteria and viruses and other agents that cause disease.
The organs that make up the immune system include the bone marrow, spleen, thymus and lymph nodes which produce the white blood cells or leukocytes, the immune cells which play a key role in seeking out and destroying the invading organisms.
The immune cells are widespread in the body and can be found in the blood, skin, eyes and the lining of the digestive and respiratory tracts.
Thus, it is evident that a strong and healthy immune system is necessary to keep those germs at bay. Usually, the immune system is able to successfully ward off the infection but sometimes a poor diet, lack of sleep, stressful lifestyle and underlying health conditions such as diabetes may make the immune system weak. Given below are some simple measures that will strengthen your immune system and protect you during this cold and flu season.
Why are You more Likely to Fall Sick during the Cold Season?
We have our parents and grandparents constantly telling us not to go out in the cold without covering our ears, avoid drafts of cold air or not go out with wet hair. Why do people fall sick more in winter? The answers to this question are highly complex as well as fascinating.
- The truth is that cold weather itself does not make us sick but the germs. Studies have shown that the influenza virus that causes flu peaks in the winter season
- Studies have shown that the virus causing common cold multiplies better in cooler temperatures as may occur in the nose compared to the core body temperature
- The covering of the flu virus becomes tougher in temperatures close to freezing making it more potent, survive longer and spread better
- The immune system may not be working at its best when the temperature in the nasal cavity and the upper airways is cooler compared to the rest of the body. Additionally, the mucus lining of the nasal passages and hairs may have reduced ability in the cold weather to clear the pathogenic germs from the airways
- Dry cool weather coupled with central heating makes it easy for the cold and flu viruses to enter the dry nasal passages. Also, the viruses discharged in aerosol droplets survive longer in cool dry weather and spread
- Studies have shown that students in crowded dorms with poor ventilation caught cold more often while good ventilation and humid air renders the influenza virus inactive
- Last but not least, simply being in contact with many people in the same room indoors in the cold weather with the windows shut may promote spread of infection
Simple Ways to Boost Your Immune System during Cold and Flu Season
Following the health tips and precautions given below can go a long way in keeping you healthy during the cold winter months. Here is what you can do.
- Eat well and consume a healthy balanced diet – A healthy balanced diet rich in protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes is essential to boost the immunity. Also, a major portion of the immune system occurs in the digestive tract and a healthy diet is necessary to keep the intestinal tract healthy. Avoid processed food as these create an inflammatory environment within the body and reduce immunity.
- Drink plenty of water – Drinking plenty of water helps keep the mucus thin and flush out the toxins and infectious organisms, particularly during a bout of cold when there is an excess of thick mucus secreted within the airways.
- Get a good night’s sleep – Lack of sleep can weaken the immune system. Seek medical help if you suffer from any condition that disrupts normal sleep eg sleep apnea.
- Manage stress – Persons leading a stressful lifestyle or suffering from anxiety will have weak immunity making them susceptible to infections. It is important to consult a doctor or a therapist to help you cope with stress. Practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga can help.
- Get regular exercise – Exercise offers untold benefits not only to physical but mental health as well. It improves the blood circulation which in turn carries the immune cells to all parts of the body. Moreover, the improved mental health with regular exercise will also boost the immune system.
- Get some fresh air every day – Spending time indoors in poorly ventilated rooms can favor the spread of germs. Going out into the fresh air and getting a healthy dose of sunshine (and vitamin D) can do wonders for the immune system. Improve air circulation indoors by opening the windows. Keep the surfaces in your office and house clean.
- Avoid smoking and alcohol – Smoking has been shown to depress the immune system. Excess alcohol causes weight gain which weakens the immunity. Also, alcohol dehydrates the body which favors survival and spread of viruses and infectious organisms. Avoid stimulants such as caffeinated beverages.
- Keep the nasal passages moist – Dryness favors the growth and spread of viruses. Do regular steam inhalation and saline irrigation to keep the airways moist and hydrated especially in the cool, dry weather and in poorly ventilated indoor conditions when you have a cold. Avoid close contact with infected persons and crowded spaces, especially in cool dry weather. Consult a pharmacist about products to make the air within the house or office moist.
- Wash hands regularly – Viruses can survive outside a patient’s body and we can, therefore, get infected by touching an infected person or surfaces such as door handles or knobs which are high traffic surfaces. It is important to wash one’s hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after returning home from outside, before eating and after visiting the toilet. Carry a hand sanitizer in your bag when you travel.
- Get the flu vaccination – In spite of the above safety measures you can still get sick and it is, therefore, important to have the annual flu vaccine. If enough people in the community get vaccinated, it will help protect babies, the elderly and immunocompromised who cannot be vaccinated. Consult your doctor about the flu shot before the cold season.
- Home Remedies to Fight that Nasty Cold - If you already have the flu, there are several home remedies to help fight the cold and flu. Some of these include:
- Oregano oil to bring down fever
- A pinch of turmeric (haldi) in a glass of warm milk to soothe the throat
- Drink amla or Indian gooseberry juice, as it is rich in vitamin C
- Freshly grated ginger mixed with honey or as ginger capsule helps control the nausea
- Honey and lemon mixture helps relieve a cough
- Crushed black pepper mixed with honey helps reduce fever and clear the congestion
- Herbal tea spiced with tulsi (basil) builds immunity