Most of us don’t realize we’re in the midst of daily germ warfare. Like a superhero in combat, our immune system quashes microscopic attackers before they can make us sick. But to be successful, our germ-kicking crusader must be healthy and strong.
“Your immune system is designed to fight anything trying to invade your body -- infections, viruses, bacteria,” says Dr. Adam Prawer, a board-certified family medicine physician on the medical staff at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.
Composed of special organs, cells and chemicals that battle infection-causing microbes, the immune system works hard to recognize dangerous intruders and get rid of them. “By creating a physical barrier, the skin is actually the immune system’s first line of defense,” says Dr. Prawer. “As long as you don’t get a cut, bacteria have a tough time entering.”
Because the skin is so good at its job, most contagions actually enter through your respiratory system (think nose and mouth). Once in your body, their arrival sets off a series of protective actions.
Everyone is born with some general protection. Our immunity increases as we're exposed to various diseases or immunized against them with vaccines.
“Germs have proteins unique to them on their surface called antigens,” says Dr. Prawer. “These antigens prompt white blood cells to make protective antibodies. These antibodies attach to the antigen, the way a key fits into a lock, and help destroy it.”
After antibodies have been created and the germ eliminated, special cells commit the culprit to memory. If you run into that microbe again, these memory cells instantly alert the body to trigger the appropriate antibodies. The potential problem is eliminated before you even know you were re-exposed to the infection.
Immunizations work in a similar manner, introducing an antigen so the body can produce antibodies to ward off future infection. “Because vaccines contain weakened, dead or synthetic versions of viruses, you become immune without getting sick,” says Dr. Prawer. “For example, it is virtually impossible to ‘get’ the flu from a vaccine today because it isn’t made with live virus.”
Community protection, or herd immunity, happens when enough people become resistant to a disease that its spread to others becomes unlikely. “Herd immunity usually occurs with vaccinations or if enough people get infected naturally,” says Dr. Prawer. “However, the more contagious a virus is, the more immune people it takes to activate herd immunity.”
Immune System Myth Busters
Contrary to popular belief, downing large doses of vitamins and supplements won’t benefit a healthy immune system. “If your immune system is weak or out of balance, you can strengthen it to a degree,” says Dr. Prawer. “There are vitamin D receptors on the immune system, for example. If you are deficient in vitamin D, a supplement might help the immune system work like it should.
“But there aren’t any supplements that will increase the number of fighter cells or antibodies in your immune system,” he adds. “Getting vaccinated is the only thing we can actually do to supplement the antibodies in our body.”
While taking extra vitamins probably won’t help your immune system, wearing a mask over your nose and mouth won’t hurt it. “Right now, everyone wants an opinion on masks,” says Dr. Prawer, who debunks the myth that not wearing one will build your immunity. “Wearing a mask is all about minimizing risk. Anything we can do to help prevent an infection from getting into the body is something we should do. If everyone is wearing a mask, the chance of catching a virus is less possible.”
Infection Fighting Dos and Don’ts
Although you can’t make a healthy immune system more effective or efficient, you can damage it. Smoking, vaping, excessive drinking, poor nutrition and lack of sleep can affect your body’s ability to fight infection.
To keep your immune system in tiptop condition, take a commonsense approach. Strive to control stress, get enough shut-eye, exercise and eat well.
“Much of our immune system’s strength depends on how well we take care of our bodies,” says Dr. Prawer. “The better your general health, the better your body will be at fighting infection.”