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Protect your immune system during flu season and COVID-19

It’s never been more important to protect your immune system as we face both the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021-2022 flu season. Jemese Richards-Boyd, M.D., a Piedmont primary care physician, shares ways you can boost your immune system and protect your health.

“We have been dealing with COVID-19 for some time, but it is important to remember that it still exists, even if you have not been personally affected,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd.

She notes that some people may not be as diligent about handwashing, wearing a mask indoors if they live in an area with substantial or high transmission, and practicing social distancing as the pandemic continues.

How the immune system works

“The immune system is comprised of various types of cells and the lymphatic system,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd. “Its sole purpose is to recognize ‘intruders’ in your body and destroy them. It also develops a memory of what it has been exposed to previously, so it can mount a faster immune response in the future.”

How stress affects the immune system

Many of us have felt added stress during the past two years. Stress causes the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which is involved in the body’s "fight or flight" response. Prolonged cortisol elevation in the bloodstream can cause inflammation, which can negatively affect the immune system, she explains.

Keep your stress in check with these helpful stress management techniques.

How exercise affects the immune system

“Moderate exercise can boost immunity by increasing blood flow and helping to reduce chronic stress,” says Dr. Richardson-Boyd.

She notes that the ways in which different types of exercise impact different people are still being studied.

Do your best to stay active this season. The general recommendation for adults is 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week.

How diet affects the immune system

For many of us, our eating habits have changed in various ways since the start of the pandemic, whether we’ve been snacking more, ordering more takeout, reaching for comfort foods or eating larger portions.

“In general, a poor diet and lack of nutrients can interfere with the activity of your immune cells and possibly even the production of different immune cells,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd. “If you lack the necessary nutrition and become exposed to an infection, your body may not be able to mount the response it needs to fight the infection.”

Learn more about creating a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Do you need a daily multivitamin?

“The best thing would be to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, as many nutrients are best absorbed through digestion,” she says. “However, if this is not possible, you could take a daily multivitamin, with the understanding that everything in the vitamin may not be completely absorbed. The best thing to strive for is a healthy, balanced diet.”

How sleep affects the immune system

“Lack of sleep can negatively impact your immune system,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd. “It is important to practice good sleep hygiene to make sure you avoid common pitfalls that disrupt your ability to get restful sleep.”

She recommends contacting your health care provider if you have trouble sleeping, as this can be caused by a variety of conditions.

What can harm the immune system?

“Chronic stress, inadequate sleep, smoking and an unbalanced diet can all affect your immune system,” says Dr. Richards-Boyd. “Certain chronic diseases, like diabetes, can also impact it, so it is important to keep up with your virtual or in-person doctor visits during this time to make sure chronic conditions stay under control.”

How to protect yourself from the flu and COVID-19

Dr. Richards-Boyd recommends the following to protect yourself and others from the flu:

  • Get a flu shot.

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially when you get home, before eating, before touching your face and after sneezing, coughing or using the bathroom.

  • Stay home if you are sick to avoid spreading the virus.

“Getting a flu shot during the pandemic is important because it is possible to get both influenza and COVID-19, as they are two separate viruses,” she explains. “Infection with both would be potentially dangerous; thus, a flu shot would help avoid this possibility or, at the very least, make an infection with the flu virus less severe.”

To protect yourself and others from COVID-19:

  • Get your COVID-19 vaccine and booster.

  • Wear a mask or face covering in indoor public places if you live in an area with substantial or high transmission.

  • Avoid large group gatherings if you live in an area with substantial or high transmission.

  • Maintain social distancing around anyone who doesn’t live in your household.

  • Continue regular handwashing or use hand sanitizer.

  • Stay home if you are sick to avoid spreading the virus.

Dealing with pandemic burnout

“If you’re experiencing burnout, I recommend reflecting on how you are feeling to see if you are overwhelmed or stressed,” she says. “It is normal to feel uneasy about all the changes that have taken place so far during this pandemic, but it is important to remember that these changes will be temporary.”

Dr. Richards-Boyd notes that it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself.

“If you are feeling isolated, reach out to friends and family members. If you find that your mood has changed significantly and it is affecting your daily life, please reach out to your doctor or mental health professional,” she says. “Many people are being pulled in different directions and now is the time to not lose sight that your health is also important. Don't forget to make taking care of yourself a priority.”

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