Post-COVID, Will Sickness and Immunity Ever be the Same?

COVID-19 may change our understanding of immunity, as well as how we view sickness itself.

Ever since January 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has constituted a threat not only for potentially paving the way to deadly illness, but also for possibly hijacking the immune system. Unleashing “cytokine storms,” COVID-19 could kill by turning the body against itself. Earlier this year, researcher Akiko Iwasaki of Yale suggested that the virus may also cause “rogue antibodies that … result in targeted, longer-term damage.”

These phenomena may seem strange to those of us who didn’t already possess advanced knowledge of the immune system. But for experts, it may not have come as such a surprise.

“We never want an overactive immune system,” Dr. Mani Kukreja (MD, MPH, IIN), integrative nutrition health coach and founder of Livagewell, says. That’s why, when helping patients optimize their immunity to fend off preventable diseases, she talks about “immune-modulation” rather than “immune-boosting.” What we want, she explains, is not a supercharged immune system, but rather one “that can modify itself based on each body’s physiology.”

In addition to educating us about immunity, the coronavirus may change how we view other sicknesses.

In the early days of the pandemic, while Americans struggled to grasp the scope of the threat, the rate of fatalities from COVID-19 was frequently compared to that of the flu. In the end, these analogies illustrated the greater risk presented by the coronavirus. But at the same time, they also raised awareness of how many people die annually from influenza.

Notably, the danger of COVID-19 continuing to spread during flu season led an increased number of Americans to get vaccinated against influenza. According to an online survey conducted by The Harris Poll in August 2020, “72 percent of Americans [said] they probably or definitely [would] get the flu shot this season, with 32 percent of all U.S. adults saying they [were] more likely to get a flu shot this year than in previous years.”

The intervention appears to have worked, since the subsequent seasonal flu and cold season proved unexpectedly mild.

The decrease in flu cases may have been attributable to global quarantine, as well. As noted in an article in Nature, “In May [2020], at the tail end of the first wave of COVID-19 deaths in many nations, and when some of the strictest lockdowns were in place, health workers noted an abrupt and early halt to the 2019–20 flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. This might partly have been an artefact caused by fewer people coming to a clinic for testing, experts say, but it was also attributable to the effectiveness of policies such as social distancing.”

Now that the majority of Americans understand the importance of getting the flu vaccine, increased participation may continue.

Could COVID-19 even change the way we view the common cold? After a year of not coming down with these minor ailments due to isolation, we might experience our next one differently. Sniffling for a few days may now seem like a small price to pay for the ability to circulate freely in society and spend time with loved ones.

In these ways and others, COVID-19 has presented the opportunity to change our outlook, not to mention our very lives.

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