It is estimated that approximately 15% of Europeans will catch the flu in any winter season(1). Generally, children are more at risk of catching the flu, as well as people with preexisting health conditions such as diabetes(2). Although older adults (over 65 years of age) are less likely to catch the flu as compared to young children, when they do, they tend to suffer from more severe illness(1). So how will you know whether you will catch the flu or develop serious flu-related complications? This comes down to your immune system.
The immune system and the flu
Your immune system is your body’s defense system against diseases(3). When a virus or bacteria enters your body your immune system triggers a response to produce antibodies that essentially search out these foreign pathogens and destroy them(3). There are two subsystems within your immune system, known as the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system(4). The innate immune system is also called the non-specific immune system as it provides a general defense for the body(4). The adaptive immune system is the one that makes antibodies to fight specific viruses and bacteria which have entered your body(4). This part of the immune system can recognise pathogens your body had encountered previously and will readily produce the right antibodies to fight against the diseases as and when it encounters the foreign body again(4). You can train your adaptive immune system to learn and fight off new viruses and bacteria(4) by getting vaccinated(3). Vaccines work by introducing a weakened or inactive part of the new pathogen to your body(5). Because the pathogen is already weakened or is inactive, the injected vaccines will not cause the disease in you(5). It will simply prompt your immune system to respond to the foreign body as it would have on its first encounter with the actual virus or bacteria. Moreover, your body will build response memory based on it(5). This way, when you encounter the pathogen, your body already knows how to fight it off!
Other ways to boost your immune system
In addition to vaccination, there are other ways to boost your immune system and ensure that you stay healthy. Poor health habits can slow your immune system and make you more susceptible to catching the flu(3). Lowering your stress, getting enough sleep and exercising are some lifestyle tactics to help boost your immune system(3).
It is never too late!
Although we are already in the current flu season, it is never too late to speak to your health provider about getting the flu vaccination. As well, it is always important to follow a healthy lifestyle to ensure your immune system is ready to protect you from external pathogens.
(1) Immunity following influenza disease and administration of influenza vaccines. ECDC. Available at: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/seasonal-influenza/prevention-and-control/vaccines/immunity. Accessed on: 15 August 2022
(2) Why flu is riskier for some people. WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/flu-chronic-conditions. Accessed on: 15 August 2022
(3) Prevent the flu: Boost your immune system. WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/use-your-immune-system-to-prevent-flu. Accessed on: 15 August 2022
(4) WHOHow does the immune system work? InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279364/. Updated on: 23 April 2020. Accessed on: 15 August 2022
(5) How do vaccines work? WHO. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/how-do-vaccines-work. Accessed on: 15 August 2022