Why Some Get Sick and Others Dont

by | Feb 12, 2011

Do you ever wonder why some people seem to be sick all winter long, and some seem to sail through cold and flu season as though it were summer? This topic has been on my mind ever since I had my son a year ago, and I recently heard an interesting piece on NPR addressing this very topic (see link below). Before my son arrived, I saw many of my friends with children in daycare suffer through cold after cold after cold, and wondered what it was they were doing wrong. I figured that given all of the great supportive measures I know that my path through the first years of daycare would be relatively painless. This year has been the most humbling of my entire life. My son has been in part-time daycare since he was three months old, and he has had a runny nose practically nonstop! (Not to mention croup, RSV, and a number of other wonderful ailments that appear to be a rite-of-passage for some of us). It truly made me wonder: what makes some fall ill while others do not?

In this article, Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic cites a number of reasons why some of us are sick more frequently than others. He says the reason lies in a combination of genetics and exposure. Some people are genetically programmed to not respond with inflammation after exposure to many viruses, thus these people have fewer colds during the year. We still have not been able to identify the genetic code that enables this stronger immunity, but Dr. Poland says his team is very interested in finding out. He also mentioned that exposure makes a difference. Surfaces that people with viral infections touch are the most common site for passing viral particles from one person to the next, even moreso than the sharing of respiratory droplets. While the “three foot rule” is still an important one to observe when sharing space with people who are sick, it seems that even more important is being aware of hand-washing and avoiding touching your face after you have touched potentially contaminated surfaces.

There are, of course, other mitigating factors which need to be mentioned. My husband and I had been lucky until December that we had not contracted all of the colds and viruses that my son brought home with him from daycare. My suspicion is that the stress of moving the practice, travelling to the east coast, and losing sleep while my son had croup all suppressed our immune systems, and we finally both became ill in January. (And I must admit that my very strong affinity for sweets even further suppressed my immunity!) So while we may not be able to control our genetic inheritance or our exposure to viral particles, there are many things we can do to stimulate our immune systems and prevent infection that don’t cost us money. The following practices can be observed in an effort to prevent frequent infection:

  • wash hands frequently
    • Allow your kids to get dirty and exposed, but if they have been around other kids who are sick, it helps to wash hands before they get a chance to stick fingers up noses, in mouths, etc.
  • avoid excessive sweets
    • We know that sugar suppresses our immune system’s ability to mount a strong reaction and protect us from viruses and bacteria. Just as sugar feeds our bodies, it will also feed invaders, so keep it to a minimum.
  • get enough sleep
    • As much as you have control over this, allow yourself a minimum of 6-8 hours of restorative sleep per night.
  • eat fresh fruits and vegetables
    • Yes, your grandmother was right. Eating lots of brightly-colored fruits and veggies ensures that you are getting a broad variety of vitamins and minerals to support a healthy immune system.
  • pay attention to your stress level
    • again, we might not always have control over this, but if you know that your family passes colds around all winter long, perhaps consider minimizing exposure to factors that you know create extra stress in your household such as too many extra-curricular activities or excessive travel

The upside of frequent colds and flus in your house may be this: exposure eventually breeds immunity, and once you are immune to a particular virus you should be immune for life. I do remember that for the first few years of clinical practice feeling like I was sick all of the time. I was exposed to so many more people every day than I had been previously, much as a teacher might be during the first few years of teaching. My sister-in-law recently told me that it seemed to her we were sick all the time. She and her husband very rarely get sick, and that has been true as long as I have known them. But she knew me when I was doing my first clinical work, and it feels like for the past few years I have been sick less and less often. I am sure that for the next few years of my son’s life I will be exposed to many more viruses, and will fall ill with some, but my hope is that with some good supportive measures and a little luck, we all might eventually become sick less and less often. And here’s to hoping that my son inherits the solid genetic immunity of my in-laws!

to listen to or read the article on NPR go to http://www.npr.org/2011/02/07/133500558/why-some-people-evade-colds-and-others-dont

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