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Are We Thinking of Virus Symptoms Wrongly?

Personal Perspective: Suffering through mild Covid or flu can be restorative.

Key points

  • Symptoms of sicknesses are not necessarily our enemies.
  • Understanding the immune system should make a sick person less miserable.
  • We should be happy when our immune system does its job.
Public DomainCDC Public Health Image Library ID 11162
A man mid-sneeze
Public DomainCDC Public Health Image Library ID 11162

I recently recovered from contracting COVID-19. It was my first COVID-19 experience, and I viewed it as an honorable rite of passage.

I had Covid and the flu back-to-back. I had up-to-date vaccines for both, no symptoms of COVID-19, and a bearable attack of the flu. Of course, I knew that I was lucky to escape a severe illness that had killed others whose immune systems were not as strong as mine.

What does it mean to be sick?

What do we, the targets of microbial enemies, really know about viral diseases? We tend to think our viruses cause coughs, mucus, sneezes, fevers, headaches, and joint pains. In truth, they do not, at least not directly. In most cases, the symptoms are the good guys, the warriors protecting us. And so, we should be happy that we have those combatants on our side, even though they annoyingly keep us up at night.

Take the common cold. It is a viral disease that can infect the upper respiratory tract, build nose, throat, and sinus mucosa, and elevate body temperature to cause all sorts of annoyances. But almost all of those annoyances should be welcomed as symptoms that keep the body healthy and functioning as best it can. In a relatively healthy body, T and B cells are the friends that recognize alien antigens sitting on cell surfaces. Having identified the invaders, they build tailored responses to eliminate specific pathogens and pathogen-infected cells. B cells then produce antibodies to neutralize the pathogens that could lead to cell infection. All the miserable feelings that come with viruses and bacterial infections indicate that your immune system is doing its job.

In third grade, I watched a 1943 Disney cartoon on vaccination against an invasion by disease; fortunately, it has been preserved on YouTube:

It tells the story of vaccinations in a most absorbing way for anyone, young or old, even though it is riddled with a mid-twentieth-century gender bias. It made a terrific impression on me. In all the years of recalling that cartoon, I took it as a view of how amazingly the human immune system protects us from disease.

Inhaling or swallowing pathogens exposes the body to what we might call disease, which is an infection that can alter or damage cells. But a network of lymphoid organs that is part of our defense mechanism becomes alert when things go wrong. That is when the coughing, sneezing, aches and pains, and fever make us feel miserable while working to fight off harmful pathogens until we feel better. Consider fever, for instance. Most pathogens cannot survive in temperatures higher than normal body heat. Fever is part of the immune system that miraculously organizes networks of defense designed to entrap and flush out foreign invading microbes.

Coughing and sneezing—the mucus production scheme—is the immune system's method of drowning and extinguishing harmful microbes. We tend to think that inflammation, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue are part of the disease, but they also are part of the fight to inhibit infections. Even cramps and muscle pain are members of the warrior group that takes up arms against the nasty pathogens because they borrow proteins from muscles and use them to stop the replication of microbes and build weapons such as mucus, that liquid whose job it is to flush out the enemy.

That said, I add a few words of caution. High-level fevers are heavy arms of the immune system battling against a possible infection or something beyond a virus. For adults, a temperature over 103 F is considered high. Consult a doctor if the temperature is near that level. A degree or two higher is an alarm to seek emergency care.

As my flu ended, I thought about my constant lingering cough and was delighted to understand that my immune system was working well. Had my lungs stopped working or had my chest become painful, it would have been a different story. Why do doctors not tell their flu, COVID-19, and RSV patients to celebrate fevers, coughs, sneezes, and joint pains? Perhaps they assume that their patients already know that we already know about all the miraculous body defenses that keep us healthy.

Carry on, immune system. You are annoying, but, in the end, I appreciate everything you do.


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