Prevent the Flu: Boost Your Immune System

Looking for some ways to rev up your immune system so you don’t get the flu this year? That’s a great idea. When it’s working well, it can help you avoid illness. But if you let it get run down, you’re more likely to get sick.

Learn what your body's defenses do and how to strengthen them so you can boost your odds of staying well.

What Is the Immune System?

Simply put, it’s a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against disease. It stops threats like bacteria or viruses from getting into your body.

Think of it as a powerful "search and destroy" task force that sends immune-cell forces out to hunt down the unwanted intruders and get rid of them.

How Does It Work?

Your body makes proteins called antibodies that destroy abnormal or foreign cells. They help fend off common ailments like the flu or a cold, and protect you against major illnesses like cancer or heart disease.

You also have a backup response known as the "cell-mediated immune system." This involves immune system cells rather than antibodies. They help your body create memories of past defenses against certain threats.

When your body sees that invader again, it calls up that memory and sets out to destroy the threat before the disease develops. This is what makes vaccines or immunizations work for illnesses like the flu, measles, chicken pox, or hepatitis. The shot has a small but harmless amount of the disease in it so your immune cells can react, learn, and remember how to protect you from it next time.

Do Lifestyle Changes Help?

Yes. Bad health habits can slow your immune system. That’s why doctors urge you to make certain lifestyle changes.

To get started, lower your stress -- it's the most important change you can make. A steady flow of stress hormones makes it hard for your body to keep you well. Relaxation techniques, daily exercise, and stress-management techniques can all help.

Next work on getting enough sleep.You need 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye each night to boost your defenses.

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Exercise also helps your immune system perform at a high level.

These tactics alsobump up your levels of IgA, a protein in your immune system that fights infections. It helps keep threats out of your body -- and zaps any that do get in.

Finally, make good hygiene a habit. Nothing beats the power of frequent hand washing to keep germs at bay. Wash them for as long as it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

What Vaccines Should I Get?

Almost all adults and children should get a pneumonia vaccine and a flu shot, especially seniors and anyone whose immune system is weakened by a disease like HIV or cancer. Babies under 6 months don’t get one.

Update your tetanus vaccine once every 10 years. If you have a high-risk job (like hospital worker) get vaccines for hepatitis A and B.

Children and teens need these:

The CDC says all children ages 11 to 12 need a vaccine for meningitis with a booster at ages 16 to 18. Also get one if you’re traveling to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on January 29, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:
Mayo Clinic: "Germs: Understand and protect against bacteria, viruses and infection."
Mayo Clinic: "Vaccines when your immune system is compromised."
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: "Tips to remember: Recurrent, or unusually severe infections."

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