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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Using Your Immune System to Stay Well

Experts explain how you can tap the power of your immune system to avoid getting sick.
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You and a friend step into a crowded elevator and immediately notice two people coughing and sneezing up a storm.

Within a couple of days you come down with a bad cold -- and blame it on that elevator ride. Yet your friend -- exposed to the same germs at the same time -- remains perfectly healthy.

Recommended Related to Cold & Flu

The Flu and You: Your Urgent Response Guide

You can take all the precautions in the world, but sometimes the flu sneaks around your defenses. So what do you do when someone in your house has the flu -- or even swine flu? To give you an idea, here's a countdown of five average days with the flu. Keep in mind that this rundown is based on a typical case of seasonal flu. There's still a lot we don't know about swine flu. But so far, its symptoms seem to be pretty similar to those of common seasonal flu viruses.

Read the The Flu and You: Your Urgent Response Guide article > >

What made the difference? The power of the immune system. It's a network that can help us avoid illness -- or sometimes become the underlying reason we get sick.

"The strength of our immune system is what makes the difference between who gets sick and who doesn't. The one with the immune system functioning below base-line normal has an increased risk of getting sick," says Woodson Merrell, MD, director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

But is there anything you can do to keep your immune system from dropping below par -- or increase its activity if it does?

Doctors say yes. And the secrets lie in understanding a bit about how the immune system works -- and how your everyday life can stoke the fires of protection.

In simplest terms, the immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against disease. It blocks foreign proteins from getting into your body. If a few happen to sneak by your biological sentry, not to worry. With a powerful "search and destroy" task force, your body deploys a host of additional immune cell forces designed to hunt down these unwanted invaders and ultimately works to destroy them.

Fending Off Illnesses

"This entire system is known as the 'humoral' response. It's your body's innate ability to manufacture antibodies that counter the infectious particle -- allowing your body to eradicate it," says Phillip Tierno Jr., PhD. He's director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center, and author of The Secret Life of Germs.

Antibodies are proteins which can identify normal "self" cells verses foreign invading cells. They work as part of the immune system to destroy abnormal or foreign cells.

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