Who's afraid of the bogeyman?
Posted on 7th February 2018 at 07:30
With the Flu season now in full swing, accompanied by near hysterical reporting in the press about it being “the worst ever”, it really is time for reality check. Not to mention a dose of that seemingly rarest of all commodities, common sense.
In recent years, the Flu season seems to have started earlier and earlier. Hardly has the summer begun here in the UK, when stories start appearing in the press about the forthcoming Flu season. How new strains are appearing in the Far East / Australia / fill in the blank. That they’re all heading for the UK. And it’s going to be the worst season ever. The picture painted is of Flu rampaging its way round the world, a sinister figure with evil intent bent on worldwide domination. A bogeyman for adults.
It’s enough to make you want to retreat to the safety of your bed, pull the duvet over your head and stay there until it’s all over.
But is this really the case?
All pathogens – and by that we mean bacteria, virus or other micro organism that can cause disease – are continually changing and mutating into new strains. It’s a simple strategy that’s served them well for millennia and keeps them one step ahead of their – unlucky – host’s immune system. It gives them the maximum time to exploit their host’s body and resources before its immune system catches up with them and destroys them.
Put another way, it’s like coming home to find that squatters have moved into your house. If you haven’t had to deal with this scenario before, it’s going to take time to get your act together and take the necessary action to evict them. But, if it happens again, you’ll know exactly what to do and deal with them much more quickly and effectively.
And so it with the immune system. Each time a different pathogen is encountered it “learns” how to deal with it. This means that the next time it comes into contact with it – whether exactly the same strain or a similar one – it’s then dealt with much more efficiently. In the process it also acts as a workout for the immune system as a whole, so that it then functions much more efficiently overall. Just think of the old adage “use it or lose it” and you’ll get the idea. The more you practise doing something, the better you get at it overall.
Continuing with the squatters analogy, what if the squatters used different tactics the next time? Say changing the locks or barricading themselves in. Well, you’d still know what to do but would need a bit more time to take additional action to deal with these new tactics.
And it’s exactly the same process when a new strain appears. The immune system already has general experience of it but, as a slightly different approach is needed, things may take a little longer or require slightly more effort.
It’s easy to see this in practice, when small children start going to nursery. To start with they seem to pick up every bug doing the rounds – nurseries are called “snot factories” for good reason (!) – but, after a while, this stops.
Their immune system has “learnt” to deal with these pathogens and grown stronger as a result. It then deals much more efficiently with those it comes into contact with. A cold that used to last a week or more, is dealt with in only a few days. While a “new” pathogen – one that it hasn’t come in contact with before – may take a little longer, this is still done so a little more efficiently each time.
By a cruel twist of fate, another factor has entered the equation in recent years. Not only do pathogens change in response to the immune system, but also to the medications used by Doctors to treat it. And it doesn’t matter whether it's the humble aspirin or latest prescription only medication.
Over time medications become less effective – or require higher doses to achieve a similar effect – as the pathogen mutates into new strains to minimise its impact. This is one of the many reasons why antibiotics are no longer as effective as they were and new medications are continually being developed, in an attempt to keep one step ahead of the pathogens.
It’s also why a new Flu vaccine is needed each year, in an attempt to target the strain doing the rounds that year. However, as this has to be done well ahead of each Flu Season, it can only be a “best guess” of what strain of Flu is likely to be doing the rounds that winter. While this may sound more subjective than scientific, it is, with figures released at the end of each Flu season showing only a small success rate for this annual vaccination.
And, as an aside, early estimates of success for the current Flu vaccine are already being given in single figures. This often comes as a complete revelation to those we talk to and explains why people still get Flu despite having the injection. It also applies to other vaccinations too. There is so much more we could say here but, as vaccinations are such a contentious subject at present, we’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from this.
While it may not sell many newspapers (!) the reality is there’s no bogeyman waiting to pounce on those unfortunate enough to cross its path. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to succumb to whatever bug is “doing the rounds.” And, if you stop to think about it for a moment, the bogeyman story just doesn’t add up. Think how many times you’ve been at work – or on a bus / train / plane – surrounded by people snuffling and sneezing without succumbing to whatever they had.
So why is this?
Well, it’s not so much about the bug itself, it’s about your own susceptibility. If you’re susceptible to it you may succumb. It’s still not guaranteed though. But if you’re not susceptible to it then you won’t. And that is guaranteed.
Susceptibility is all about each of us as an individual. About whether we are “likely or liable to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing” as the dictionary puts it. In other words it’s largely under our control, about how we look after ourselves and the choices we make each day. There's so much more we could say about it but let's keep things simple for today.
In truth - and, "yes", we know you're probably tired of hearing us say it (!) - it’s about the simple things we do every day. Having a good diet. Being well hydrated. Taking regular exercise, in a form we enjoy. Having regular holidays, time to relax and unwind.
It’s also being aware of those things which may – or may not (!) – be outside our control and can affect our susceptibility in the short term. Some are obvious, such as additional stress at work or home. But what about a boozy night out with mates or interrupted sleep from nursing a sick child?
Recognising that these may be times when we’re likely to be more susceptible allows a little pre emptive action to be taken. Perhaps taking – or increasing – the amount of Vitamin C or Echinacea. Doing some juicing or increasing the amount of fruit and veg in our diet.
By foccussing on susceptibility it puts you back in the driving seat, responsible for your own health. No longer the potential victim, waiting for the bogeyman to strike. Surely that’s a much better way to live your life?
As always, the choice is yours.
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