Immune System and COVID-19
Prof. Aslı Curgunlu, MD
Yeditepe University Koşuyolu Hospital, Internal Medicine and Geriatrics Specialist
The immune system can be defined as the defense mechanism that our body creates against all factors such as germs or harmful substances coming from outside into the body. Therefore, the stronger our immune system is, the milder the infectious diseases are.
In daily life, our body can come across many harmful factors such as viruses, bacteria and carcinogenic substances. It is necessary to fight against these substances in order to sustain life and to not get sick. The immune system comes in right at this point. The immune system is very important for us to survive as it tries to eliminate the harmful effects that these substances may cause in our body.
While the immune system cells are spread throughout the body, there are immune system organs such as spleen, thymus, lymph nodes and bone marrow. When foreign matter such as a germ or cancer cell enters into or develops in the body, this system begins to produce substances called antibodies to destroy them. It targets the foreign matter and fights through antibodies until it conquers them. Since it has some kind of memory, the immune system uses each previous experience in the next struggle. The system aims to fight only foreign and harmful substances. While doing this, it protects itself and does not harm a different organ.
It is not possible to measure whether the immune system is strong or not. That is, there is no test showing whether the immune system is strong or not. Some possible blood tests do not give definitive results. They only guide us with tips. The most important indicator for this is not to contract infections or to survive with the least damage if contracted.
The immune system varies for everyone due to many different reasons such as genetic structure and general body structure. So everyone has an immune system map. Many factors such as fatigue, stress or malnutrition as well as diabetes, cancer and heart diseases weaken the immune system.
Frequent infections are the main indication that one’s immune system has weakened. For instance, having an upper respiratory tract infection 3 or 4 times in one single winter is the most important indicator of a weak immune system. In general, susceptibility to infections indicates a weak immunity. Especially during pandemics or epidemics like the one we are going through at the moment, effects are more visible and intense in people with a weak immunity.
With aging, changes in biochemical functions in our body trigger alterations in many processes involving cells and organs among others. These are extremely complex changes causing the immune system to age naturally. Therefore, the elderly should be given greater care and attention.
We get protective immunoglobins through breast milk. Then the person’s immune system organs begin to produce antibodies as they develop. This is the root of the protectiveness and importance of breast milk. In the following years, many factors ranging from genetic factors to nutrition affect the immune system. However, with aging, our immune system ages, just like our skin does. Therefore, the elderly are more prone to infections. Even the flu becomes a life-threatening risk for them.
We know by previous experience on infectious diseases how the elderly or young people will be affected. However, we do not have sufficient information about the coronavirus. We are learning new information every day. However, an analysis of the statistics obtained so far show that the elderly constitute the riskiest group. The reason is they have both an aging immune system and chronic diseases. For instance, chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart diseases are more common in the elderly than young people. The elderly are therefore much more prone.
However, this does not mean that the disease will not be seen in young people, and unfortunately, we have lost young people as well. However, we do not yet know about the immunity status of such young patients losing their lives or, to that end, the effect of coronavirus on them even if their immune system was strong. Yet we still get new information every day. The extent to which the immune system influenced the end result in these individuals will become clear only after epidemiological studies are conducted.
Although the mortality rate is low among young people, the incidence rate is still considerable. In other words, young people may not always have an immune system as strong as they think. There may be different underlying chronic problems or there may be nothing wrong at all but the disease may still arise only because of the strength of the virus. Ultimately, it is possible to say that young people enjoy a greater advantage over older people, but even if their immune systems are very strong, it does not mean that they will not have the disease.
Therefore, one should not grow complacent, thinking “My immune system is strong and I do not have any chronic diseases” or “I am young”. It is very important to pay particular attention to social isolation and strictly comply with all hygiene rules. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption both weaken immunity. It is absolutely necessary to avoid them.
People can turn to supplements too quickly, thinking “We are going through a pandemic and I must protect myself”. It is also observed that people frequently consume products that they have not consumed before. I think this is not right. Everyone has certain dietary habits or lifestyle. It is thus necessary to avoid things that will surprise the body too much. As it should be, a balanced diet rich in proteins with a balanced intake of fat, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits and legumes has a strong effect especially in the current period.
There is no such thing as an excessive strengthening of the immune system. Turning to excessive supplements or food products to strengthen the immune system may do more harm than good. For example, if a person who has a sensitive liver drinks too much herbal tea, it can have a toxic effect on their liver. Likewise, products consumed to boost immunity may cause undesirable outcomes in relation to diseases currently being treated.
Thus, it is necessary not to change the order too much and to be balanced in all matters. For example, strict diets or obesity also weaken immunity. It is also important to keep one’s normal weight.
Nowadays, vitamin C can be taken with plenty of water regardless of one’s vitamin C level. However, the key point is that all supplements must absolutely be taken under the guidance of a physician. For instance, vitamin D poisoning may occur as a result of unconscious and excessive intake of vitamin D.