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How does social distancing affect your immune system?

One of the most persistent concerns since the COVID-19 pandemic began has stemmed from the fear that staying away from people has done us more harm than good. Many people are worried that our lack of contact with other viruses and bacteria has weakened our immune systems, and we’ll now be more susceptible to colds, flu and any COVID-19 variants.

This way of thinking may come from what scientists call the “hygiene hypothesis,” which many of us grew up believing: the idea that individuals who are exposed to a variety of germs in childhood develop better immunity. And while there is some evidence to support it, keeping away from germs won’t do the same.

“Our immune system does not really work that way,” says Tia Neely, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. “As adults, we have been exposed to many germs, and our bodies maintain a ‘memory,’ so that if we are exposed again in the future, we are ready to fight that infection. Social distancing does not lead to our immune system forgetting how to do its job.”

If it seems like more people started to come down with other illnesses as pandemic restrictions eased, or if you’re questioning how some people are getting COVID-19 even after vaccination, it’s not because we weren’t near other people and their germs.

Stress and isolation themselves can weaken our body's ability to fight infection, and, therefore, we may get sicker with exposure to a virus after periods of stress,” says Dr. Neely. “When we start to get out and about without distancing or masks, we are more likely to come back into contact with viruses and bacteria and therefore we may experience a cold or respiratory infection. But our immune system will remember how to fight it and do its job to clear it from our system.”

Following the three Ws—wearing masks, washing your hands, watching your distance—may have actually kept you healthier in one respect. While it might seem like more people are getting sick, that’s a matter of perception.

“After 18 months of social distancing and masking, vaccinated people are not getting more colds than others,” says Dr. Neely. “But we are all more aware of every respiratory symptom we have and … with significantly fewer run-of-the-mill infections during that time, it is more notable when we do get sick now.”

One caveat: “We do know that stress and isolation themselves can weaken our body's ability to fight infection, and therefore we may get sicker with exposure to a virus after periods of stress,” says Dr. Neely.

The key is managing your stress by prioritizing sleep, exercise, healthy meals and self-care like meditation, yoga and time in nature.

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