By Damon Raskin, M.D. | Special to the Palisadian-Post
Q: In a typical year, I feel like I average about two to three colds, whether I pick them up from my spouse, work, or being out and about. Since I have been following COVID protocols—including mask wearing and social distancing when appropriate—I have, knock on wood, not had a single cold. Is there any downside, particularly to my immune system, to not having colds?
Wait, let me get this straight. You want to know if there is a downside to missing out on those miserable days of sniffling, sneezing, stuffy head, sore throat and cough? Surprisingly, the answer is both yes and no.
You are correct that all of the measures that you are taking to prevent COVID-19, including frequent hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, have markedly reduced the transmission of other respiratory illnesses such as the common cold and the more serious influenza virus.
Flu cases and deaths in the U.S. and worldwide dropped to unprecedented lows during last year’s flu season, which runs from October to April in the Northern Hemisphere. This is clearly a great benefit from these measures.
It is not quite clear which of these interventions made the most difference, as more people also received flu vaccine than ever before, and schools and most public venues were also closed for a good portion of this time. Now that schools are open and more people are traveling and going out, we will have to see what happens for this coming season.
There are more than 100 different strains of viruses that cause the common cold. It is not so much the virus itself that causes you to feel sick, but your body’s strong immune response that can make you feel more uncomfortable.
When patients complain that they have been sick all winter and caught everything going around, I actually know that their immune system is working perfectly well. These patients were just unlucky enough to be exposed to several viruses that they have not encountered before, and they are less likely to be as sick the following cold season, as their immune systems will have been made stronger and recognize and fight off these strains.
Likewise, individuals with diverse social networks who are exposed to lots of other people are significantly less likely to get a cold in an experimental setting than introverted loners. This is presumed to be because people who are more socially outgoing have been exposed to more infections and built up greater immunity. So if you think about it, germaphobes like Howard Hughes (who rarely left his house) are actually more vulnerable to germs than those who go out to frequent parties.
In essence, that could be the one downside to missing out on these illnesses the past 12 months. If you have been sniffling and sneezing your way through winter, be comforted by the fact that these bugs are strengthening your immune system.
Nonetheless, it is still important to keep these COVID-19 protective measures, like mask wearing, hand washing and especially vaccines, going. Other things to help boost your immune system include getting adequate sleep, exercising, eating well, drinking enough water and not smoking.
Now go enjoy the cold-free times and don’t worry so much. Too much stress can be bad for the immune system!
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