Why Getting the Occasional Cold or Flu Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing
Every now and then I have a patient who boasts proudly, “I’m healthy as a horse! I haven’t had a cold or flu in I-don’t-know-how-many-years!”
I worry for these patients, and make it a point to support their immune systems over time.
Occasional Sickness Means Your Immune System is Working.
Every day, we are exposed to bacteria, viruses, and fungi, many of which are harmful to us. When that microbial exposure is significant – as with the flu virus – our immune system gets turned on to start fighting off the microbial invader. This is when we get symptoms like body ache, fatigue, and fever. These symptoms are not necessarily a reflection of the virulence of the virus or bacteria infecting us, but rather how robustly our immune system is working to fight it off.
Fever is among the body’s most powerful defenses against invaders.
The amazing effects of a fever include:
- Increased metabolism. This thereby increases antibody production. Antibodies in turn help the body attack and kill the infection-causing microbes.
- Impaired replication of many bacteria and viruses
- Increased heart rate and thinned the blood, thereby increasing the elimination of infectious substances and waste
- Increased levels of interferon (a natural antiviral and anticancer substance) in the blood
- Increased production of white blood cells, which kill infections
When people tell me they haven’t been sick in decades, what they’re really telling me is that they likely have been exposed to bacteria and viruses, but that their immune systems were too weak to notice or respond. That can be an ominous sign.
It makes me wonder: What else is their immune system missing? Atopic conditions (like allergies, eczema, and asthma)? Various types of cancer? (Part of why cancer spreads is because the immune system doesn’t see it.) Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, celiac disease, and type I diabetes?
The over-use of antibiotics, flu shots, and a fear of childhood fevers and infectious diseases is in large part why Americans have some of the highest rates of allergic, autoimmune, and chronic illnesses.
It totally stinks, but the writing is on the wall: we need to get sick from time to time to let the immune system have some practice in identifying and killing off that which shouldn’t be there.
The Flu is Like a Turkey: You Can Cook it on High Heat for 10 Hours, or on Low for 2 Weeks.
When I was in college, I had a roommate who to this day is probably the healthiest person I know. And I don’t just mean that she eats a clean diet and exercises five days a week – though she does. I mean her vitality is strong, she has good energy, and her body is resilient. (She’s the kind of person who can once in a while go through the Burger King drive-thru, dance until 3am, throw back a few cocktails, and then wake up early the next day feeling totally fine and go run eight miles.) One winter, the flu was going around our school. The majority of my classmates who caught the flu were sick for days, some even missed two weeks of fall quarter. When my roommate caught the bug, however, her body handled it differently. She went home early from school, clocked a fever of 103 degrees, moaned aloud in achy-body-misery as she sweat through the bed sheets, and slept in the next morning. She was back in school the following day, totally recovered. Now that is a healthy person! She essentially kicked the flu in 24 hours. (Go figure, her dad is a naturopathic physician! Before she was even born, he was working hard to lay the foundations of health.)
What if she had freaked when her temperature hit 103 and took some Tylenol? Her body would have still had to fight off the virus, but it wouldn’t have been able to do so as effectively. It would be like sending her immune system to battle with one arm tied behind its back.
One of my mentors, Dr. Dickson Thom, once explained it to me this way: “Think about how you cook a turkey. You can cook it on high heat for 10 hours. Or you can cook it on low heat for two weeks. How would you rather your immune system cook the flu virus?”
In other words: Taking fever-reducing medications just makes the illness drag on longer. (Note: Once the fever hits 104 degrees, it’s a good idea to get in a tepid bath and bring the fever down to 101 or 102 to avoid the risk of neurological damage.)
Over time the use of immune-suppressive “therapies” like flu shots, antibiotics, and fever-reducing medications dampen the immune system’s competence.
Over time, these therapies reduce the robustness with which the body responds to invaders. This is what’s at play for those individuals who at best hit 99 degrees F when they get sick. Colds and flus linger for weeks at a time in these folks, sometimes with symptoms stretching through the entire winter season.
I also have patients who get strep throat/otitis media/sinusitis with no fever every winter – a major sign that the immune system is asleep at the wheel while the same microbes wreck havoc on the same weak system.
These patients tend to do well with natural therapies that mimic fevers – treatments like saunas, steam baths followed by wet sheet wraps, yarrow/ginger/cinnamon tea, garlic compresses, fire cider, UNDA #15, and hydrotherapy techniques as taught by O.G. Carroll and other eclectic physicians.
When working with a patient who has a chronic illness – any chronic illness, I know we’re on the right track when that patient gets a fever. It tells me the immune system is coming back online.
We don’t need to do anything about it; this fever requires no “treatment.” I give those patients a doctor’s note excusing them from work and tell them to go to bed and to try and appreciate the hard work that their immune system is now strong enough to be doing.
But What About Cold & Flu Prevention?
By all means, please eat your veggies, take your vitamin D3 and probiotics, get enough sleep, and take your herbs this winter! These are all strategies that enhance your immune system’s wisdom and strength in both preventing illnesses and quickly overcoming them when they invariably occur. You’ll know you’re in optimal health when you get sick one to two times a year, get a high fever, and get over your illness quickly. There’s a vast difference between this and catching every little cold to go around the office.
Hand sanitizer gels, unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions, fever reducing medications, and flu shots – although they all have their place – are not the answer to every problem. These over-prescribed strategies essentially place a blindfold on the immune system. Which is to say: in the long run, they may hurt some of us more than they help. (By the way: study after study have shown that flu shots are not nearly as effective as their manufacturers would like you to believe.)
In other words: many conventional approaches to flu prevention and treatment suppress the immune system, whereas natural therapies work by enhancing it.
If you do get the flu, it’s still a good idea to see your naturopathic physician, or other functional-medicine-oriented provider for help with relieving your discomfort, getting over the infection more quickly, and reducing the risk of developing complications. But if your provider tells you to take Tylenol? Send them this article.
Newborns (three months or younger) with fever of 100.5oF or higher. Note that teething never causes fever over 100.5oF (rectally).
Infants or children with fever of 104.F or higher that doesn’t respond to at home fever-reducing therapies, or that keeps creeping back up.
Fever in children lasting more than 3 days
Child’s first febrile seizure: Younger children may sometimes experience a febrile seizure during a high fever. Although these can be alarming to witness, they typically do not affect the child’s health long term. Children who have had a febrile seizure once are more likely to have them again in the future. Bring your child in for a visit with us or go to urgent care/emergency department for an assessment after the first time your child has a febrile seizure.
Adults with fever of 101.0oF or higher lasting longer than three days
Adults with fever of 100.5 oF lasting longer than three weeks without other symptoms.
Elders with shortness of breath, urinary pain, or any sign of infection – whether or not they have a fever. Serious illnesses present differently among elders, and they are less likely to mount fevers in general.
Signs of ear, sinus, lung, or other infection.
Signs of strep throat: such as severe sore throat, high fever, swollen lymph nodes, rash, enlarged tonsils, drooling
Compromised breathing or exacerbation of asthma symptoms
Symptoms of meningitis: namely severe headache, stiff neck, rash, and/or changes in mental status can indicate a life-threatening infection – go to emergency department!
Any other symptoms that are distressing to you, or if you’re just not sure. When in doubt, see a doctor.