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Explained: How Your Immune System Fights Off Coronavirus (and Other Germs)

Our immune systems are very finely tuned, experts say. But yes, there are steps you can take to make sure yours is working at its best.

With coronavirus concerns spreading quickly across the globe, claims of what might help individuals avoid catching it are also on the rise. Beyond precautions like hand-washing and avoiding people who are ill, what can you do to make sure your immune system is ready to fight off COVID-19 and other viruses that you may be exposed to?

First of All, How Does Our Immune System Work?

Let’s start at the beginning: The immune system is the network of cells throughout our body (in the skin, the blood, and elsewhere) that work together to prevent or limit infection from potentially harmful pathogens (like bacteria and viruses) and to prevent damage from noninfectious agents (like sunburn and cancer), according to a definition from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Scientists categorize the various immune cells in two groups: innate immune cells and adaptive ones, explains Michael N. Starnbach, PhD, a professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Innate immune cells are the first line of defense. They identify microbes and other potential threats, triggering a response to get rid of them. Adaptive immune cells are involved in the second part of an immune response. “These are special cells that respond to ‘mop up’ the remainder of the organisms left after the innate immune response,” Dr. Starnbach says.

Here comes the interesting part: The adaptive immune system has what’s known as “immune memory,” meaning that when those cells see a pathogen that has previously entered the body, not only do they help get rid of the invader, they also make more copies of themselves to continue to build a stronger defense in the future so the body is better prepared to fight off the pathogen if and when it reappears, says Starnbach.

In the case of new viruses, such as the novel coronavirus, however, no one has a heightened response to it, because no one’s immune memory has encountered it. No one has been exposed and therefore no one has developed immunity, leaving more of us susceptible, Starnbach explains. 

We also don’t have vaccines against the new virus like we have for known viruses.

RELATED: Scientists Fast-Track Research for Coronavirus Treatment and Vaccine

Vaccines work precisely because of immune memory, Starnbach says. When you get a vaccine, such as for flu, you’re exposing your immune system to a version of the virus that causes the body to enhance the number of immune cells that can respond to and fight off the virus if you get exposed to the real thing. Vaccines are a kind of boost to our immune systems that actually does work, Starnbach says.

But it’s worth noting that a vaccine isn’t a boost to our whole immune system. A flu shot doesn’t make you more resistant to colds and other illness; it boosts your immune response to the specific strains of the flu that the vaccine was designed to protect you from.

“A vaccine is very specific and designed to fight off a particular pathogen such as chicken pox, polio, or the flu,” Starnbach says.

The idea of boosting your immune system globally to make you more resistant to everything or anything that might be out there is really flawed, Starnbach says.

“Our immune systems are very finely tuned,” he explains. The different immune cells are geared to recognize things in our bodies that are potentially harmful and to clear out those things. “If they weren’t, we either wouldn’t be able to respond to the organism that might invade us. Or if our immune systems were too active they would attack our own tissues.”

The immune system attacking our own tissue is what happens in the case of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease. “And we don’t want to globally tune up the immune system to that point,” Starnbach notes.

Some research has investigated whether supplements with specific vitamins and nutrients may help protect against specific colds and viruses, but the data would seem to suggest that if supplements are helpful they may do more in the way of reducing severity of an infection or illness once you catch it rather than fighting it off in the first place.

What’s really important to remember about the novel coronavirus is that scientists hadn’t studied it before the outbreak at the end of 2019 and don’t yet have answers about whether or not certain remedies may or may not help, says Yufang Lin, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Lyndhurst Campus of the Cleveland Clinic Health System in Ohio. Vaccines have not yet been developed or tested; there is no data to say that a supplement that may have lessened severity, for instance, of a cold has the same effect when it comes to COVID-19.

What We Do Know: There Are a Lot of Factors That Can Weaken Immune Health

You’ve likely been hearing that people with weakened immune systems should take extra precautions when it comes to avoiding COVID-19 risk. What makes one person’s immune system “weaker” than someone else’s?

There are several known factors that make it harder for our bodies’ immune systems to work at their best and fight off potentially harmful pathogens (like the new coronavirus). They include:

Smoking Smoking suppresses your immune systems and weakens your lungs, so people who smoke are more susceptible to having pneumonia or a viral infection, Lin says.

Medications Some drugs can keep your immune system from functioning in the way that a healthy person’s would, says Lin. “Immunomodulators, steroids, or medications for autoimmune conditions can suppress your immune system,” she says.

Age Young children can be more susceptible to catching viruses because their immune systems are still developing; it’s part of the maturation process, Lin says. As they grow older, children’s immune systems are exposed to different viruses, they become accustomed to being exposed to more viruses, and they become much more able to fight those off. “But when they are very young, every time [children] see a new pathogen their body is mounting a significant response,” Lin says. It appears as though children are not at a higher risk for catching the new coronavirus, however, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Older people, too, tend to have weaker immune systems than other groups. Older people can have multiple chronic medical problems, says Lin. If the body is constantly dealing with a variety of medical conditions that can make it harder to fight off a virus. “Along with that, as we get older our immune system gets a little bit weaker, and it can take longer for our bodies to mount a significant immune response when we get sick. That gives the virus or infection more time to grow or to replicate, which could lead to more severe symptoms,” says Lin.
Underlying medical conditions Preexisting chronic medical conditions, like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, can affect the immune system and make people with these conditions at higher risk of infections. People with these conditions also do appear to be at a higher risk of becoming severely ill with the new coronavirus than others, according to information from the World Health Organization. Additionally, the CDC advises that older adults are also at heightened risk of COVID-19 (though does not specify an age group).

Pregnancy Pregnant women experience changes in their immune system and body that may place them at higher risk for catching viral infections, including COVID-19, according to the CDC. Just by being pregnant your immune system is somewhat stretched, because it is taking care of two rather than just one, says Lin. “This may put pregnant women at risk for developing a more severe infection,” she explains.

Malnutrition People who are malnourished are more susceptible to viruses and certain diseases, Starnbach says. Deficiency of certain vitamins and minerals in the body keeps the immune system from functioning at its best. Replenishing those missing nutrients with supplements in those cases can help the immune system function in a healthy way and better ward off diseases and infections. (But whether or not supplements help improve immune response generally or in specific ways in people who are not deficient in vitamins and nutrients to begin with is less clear.)

The Bottom Line: What You Can Do Right Now to Keep Your Immune System Healthy

So what can you do to protect yourself against the new coronavirus and other germs? First of all, focus on preventing exposure to and spread of pathogens, Lin says. Wash your hands, and if you cough or sneeze, do so into a tissue and throw that tissue away. (The CDC has published additional guidelines on how to prevent exposure to and spread of the new coronavirus.)

RELATED: Flu Season Tips for Washing Your Hands

The other part of the equation is practicing the health-promoting behaviors that keep your own immune system functioning at top capacity (and that help prevent underlying chronic health problems that ultimately do make you more susceptible to infections), according to Lin and Starnbach. More specifically:

  1. Get enough sleep. Healthy sleep supports the immune system in a lot of really critical ways, Lin says. Research finds that there are actually very important parts of the immune response that occur during the different stages of sleep and are regulated by our bodies’ circadian systems.
  2. Eat healthy foods, including lots of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and minerals in our food are the lifelines all the systems in our body rely on to function well (including the immune system); the better you feed the body with the nutrients you need, the better it runs and can avoid chronic and acute disease, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Also avoid consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, which can interfere with immune functioning, according to an Alcohol Research review paper from 2015.)
  3. Stay active. Researchers haven’t yet pinpointed the mechanism through which staying active keeps the immune system functioning best, but they do know exercise helps keep other systems in the body functioning properly, so they suspect there’s a link, according to NIH. (There’s even evidence that older adults who exercise regularly can keep their immune systems functioning similarly to people decades younger, according to a study published in April 2018 in Aging Cell.) Note: There is evidence you can overdo it. High-intensity or extreme training can actually harm immune functioning. For optimal immune functioning, stick with moderate activity levels.
  4. Manage your stress. Stress can actually suppress the immune system, keeping it from working at 100 percent. “Try to take time to relax and do something fun,” Lin says. “Make sure you take care of yourself.”

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