Your immune system’s job is to keep you safe from infectious diseases. Think of it as your own personal infection control expert.
However, if you’re suffering from an autoimmune disorder, undergoing treatment for another condition, or under a great deal of stress, your system can develop weaknesses that decrease its ability to do its job.
When this happens, your risk of infection can rise dramatically.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and prevent infections from occurring.
Manage Your Chronic Stress
Stress is your body’s natural response to significant short- or long-term changes in your life. It’s triggered by the release of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol used to be a useful hormone that helped keep our ancestors alive when they had to run from a saber-toothed tiger, but it’s not nearly as useful in our modern, tiger-free world.
In fact, it often causes us to experience physiological overreaction to stressors that aren’t life-threatening.
We humans are built to withstand short-term – also known as acute – stress without sustaining any lasting harm. Once the stressful moment has passed, your cortisol levels are designed to decrease and your system should return to its normal, calm state.
Unfortunately, in today’s hectic world, you have a good chance of experiencing something called ongoing or chronic stress. If you have a weakened immune system, chronic stress weakens your body’s ability to rebound and can increase your risk of infection.
Individuals who suffer from chronic-stress have consistently higher-than-normal levels of cortisol. This can lead to a reduction in your supply of white blood cells, called lymphocytes. Your white blood cells are responsible for keeping viruses in check. In their absence, infectious illnesses can flourish.
So, how can you manage chronic stress? The American Psychological Association recommends:
- Finding temporary relief from stressful situations
- Using meditation as a relaxation tool
- Improving your social support network
- Getting regular exercise
You can also practice yoga, spend time in nature, or do anything that gives you that nice calm feeling. Everyone is different, so take some time to find what activities make you feel at ease and incorporate them into your routine.
Get More Exercise
Yes, you probably saw this one above in our list of stress-reduction techniques. But exercise may provide more benefits for infection control than just reducing your stress levels. We call that a win-win.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, aerobic exercise does a number of things to strengthen your immune system. For example, aerobic activity may help expel certain disease-causing organisms from your respiratory system. Also, the body heat you produce while exercising can limit the spread of infectious bacteria. Plus, exercise can encourage your body to produce specialized disease fighters in your immune system, which can strengthen your own internal infection control process.
Keep in mind: “exercise” doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon – or even a mile! You just have to get yourself moving more than you do in a typical day. Even small increases in your physical activity level can have a significant impact on improving your immune system.
Consult with your doctor before making any drastic changes. He or she may also have specific suggestions for exercise that is beneficial to someone with your condition. Then, make gradual alterations over time and keep aiming for improvement – not perfection.
Get More Sleep
Then next time you want to sleep in an extra hour, don’t beat yourself up. Getting adequate sleep is vital to the durability of your immune function.
According to the Mayo Clinic, your body produces a group of proteins known as cytokines while you’re sleeping. Some of these proteins are responsible for helping your immune system protect against infectious organisms, tissue inflammation, and stress.
If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not manufacture enough cytokines to support this crucial task. Also, fewer hours on the pillow may mean your body isn’t producing enough immunity-supporting antibodies.
The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep to reduce the risk of infections and other immune problems. Teens should get nine or 10 hours of sleep and younger children often need a minimum of 10 hours.
You know your body best, so you likely already know how many hours of sleep gives you that nice perky bounce in your step each morning. Protect that number and don’t short-change yourself. Your internal infection control system needs every second.
Eat a Nutritionally Balanced Diet
If you have a compromised immune system, you can significantly boost your internal health by including probiotics in your daily diet. By supporting the healthy bacteria that live in your gut with probiotics, the live yeasts and bacteria in your digestive system can help lower your risk of viral infections, allergies, and even eczema.
Getting adequate vitamins is also extremely important for your immune system. On the cellular level, vitamins and electrolytes help your body perform some of its most important functions. The most important vitamins include vitamins C, A, E, and D, as well as folate or folic acid (a B vitamin). Selenium, iron, and zinc are important minerals that many people are lacking. Similarly, a lack of the electrolytes sodium, magnesium, and potassium can limit muscle function as well as immune health.
Each of these nutrients supports your immune health in different ways. For example, vitamins A, C, and E serve as antioxidants that help control the spread of contagious organisms, while Zinc helps your body prevent chronic inflammation.
Talk to your doctor about your diet and whether or not you should be tested for a vitamin or mineral deficiency. If your doctor recommends increasing your intake of any of these important vitamins, minerals, or electrolytes, there are several options.
Supplements are available at most grocery stores and pharmacies. However, your doctor will likely recommend that you get all of your vitamins and minerals from eating healthy fruits, vegetables, and proteins.
While we certainly don’t want you living in fear, it’s important to take certain precautions when living with a compromised immune system.
First, handwashing should be your new favorite hobby. Always wash your hands with soap and water:
- After touching someone who is ill
- After touching any animals or pets
- Before and after using the restroom
- Before and after preparing and eating food
- After touching any public surfaces, such as handrails, elevator buttons, gas pumps, and counters.
Food preparation and dining are also times when you may be more susceptible to contracting an infection. When dining out, always ask for your meat and seafood well done and avoid any raw dairy products such as eggs.
At home, we recommend following this list of precautions from John Hopkins Medicine:
- Wash your hands with warm soapy water before and after preparing food and before eating.
- Clean the areas where you prepare food. Use a separate cutting board for raw meat.
- Throw out all prepared foods that have been opened, used, or are left over after 72 hours in the refrigerator.
- Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of cooking time in small shallow containers. Throw leftovers away that have been at room temperature more than 2 hours.
- Meat, fish, and shellfish should be cooked well done.
- Do not drink well water unless tested yearly and found to be safe.
Other precautions to consider include:
- Use barrier methods for safer sex.
- Avoid touching animal feces. (Yes, we’re giving you permission to assign doggie poo duty to your spouse.)
- Avoid swimming in natural bodies of water or public pools or hot tubs.
- Take special precautions while traveling. Wearing a safety mask may feel strange but it can protect you from inhaling many airborne pathogens.
Make Your Health & Infection Control a Priority
If you’ve been living with a chronic condition for some time, it can be easy to brush off a few symptoms as just a minor annoyance of living with an illness. However, it’s critical that you take your symptoms seriously. Infectious illnesses can worsen quickly and getting treatment as soon as possible can shorten your recovery time and protect your long-term health.
You should contact your doctor or seek medical attention right away if you experience:
- a fever greater than 100.5°
- chills or shaking
- soreness, swelling, redness or pus from a wound, central line, or other IV location
- a new cough or sore throat
- sinus pain or drainage
- white patches in your mouth or throat
- frequent, urgent, or burning urination
These can be the early signs of infection and, with a weakened immune system, the earliest intervention is the best intervention.
Infection Control Tools
If you or someone you love is living with a compromised immune system, there are a few tools that can come in handy in everyday situations to improve your at-home infection control.
First, carry hand sanitizer with you at all times. While gel-based hand sanitizers often can’t kill all germs, they do a darn good job of killing a majority of them. In a pinch or when you’re not near a sink with soap and water, you can whip out your handy dandy hand sanitizer.
As often as possible, opt for liquid antibacterial hand soap instead of bar soap. Bar soap can carry bacteria from one hand washer to the next.
Finally, don’t forget about your friends over here at GermBlast. In addition to helping school districts, healthcare facilities, and businesses keep the fight against infection outside of the body, we also service homes at affordable rates.