Every day your body is exposed to thousands of germs, but you don’t always get sick from them. Why? Because you have a superpower that you might not know about! Inside your body lives a coordinated team of germ fighters called the immune system. To be immune means to be protected, and your immune system works to protect you from invading germs (also known as pathogens) that could cause you harm.
Super interested in the immune system?
You could make a career out of it! Some immunologists conduct research to better understand how the immune system works, how germs interact with our bodies, how to make new or improved vaccines, or how to develop new drugs to fight diseases. Clinical immunologists work directly with patients who have immune system disorders, such as allergies or asthma.
Nine-year-old Zoe Riddle from Germany is very interested in the science of how the immune system works. She didn’t think a lot about germs when she was younger, but she has had a lot of extra time to think about such things during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Zoe would like to know how to be the best germ fighter possible – but that requires understanding where and how the germ fighting happens. She has read that our immune systems are made up of different organs, cells, and tissues that work together to defend our bodies against invading germs, but when she reads explanations that include big words like leukocytes, lymphocytes, and antibodies, it all starts to seem very complicated.
There has to be an easier way to help kids like Zoe understand their immune system superpower! And who better to ask for help than a doctor? Recently, Zoe had the chance to talk to Dr. Bernard Ng (Head of Global Medical & Clinical Affairs for Bayer Consumer Health) and was able to ask all the questions that she and other kids would like to know.
“Wow! What an interesting way to think about the immune system: police versus thieves,” Zoe says to her mom after talking to Dr. Bernard. “Right!” says Zoe’s mom. “It’s a story of good guys versus bad guys. We could imagine that your body is a fortress and there are bad guys outside the fortress trying to get in. Let’s make a list of what we’ve read about them.”
Knowing whether your illness is caused by bacteria or a virus will tell your doctor how to treat it. Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections; they have no impact on viruses. For most viruses, treatment consists of making the patient more comfortable by easing symptoms (like reducing fever), and the patient getting as much rest as possible so their immune system can fight the battle.
“So how do we keep those bad guys out of the fortress?” Zoe asks her mom.
“Well, just like old fortresses were built with protective barriers such as a moat and high walls, our bodies are built with a number of barriers that are designed to keep the bad guys out,” her mom explains. “For example, our skin is an organ that serves as a protective shield against infectious invaders, much like a wall. Also, did you know that the mucus membrane inside your nose and other bodily fluids, like saliva, tears and even stomach acid, contain germ-destroying chemicals that also help defend your body from invaders?”
“Cool…I did not know that!” Zoe says in surprise. “But what happens if some of the bad guys get past the barriers?”
“That’s where the good guys that Dr. Bernard talked about come in!” says her mom. “While there are a number of organs and tissues that are involved in making our immune system work, the main characters in our hero story are white blood cells. A healthy body is filled with an army of white blood cells, and like a real army, there are different divisions and roles. Let’s make another list of what we know.”
“This is really great,” Zoe exclaims! “When you explain it all like a story, it makes it much easier to understand how our immune system heroes are fighting to keep us healthy!”
“Yes – and it also helps explain why we feel so weak and exhausted while our immune system is trying to fight off a germ attack,” her mom says. “There is a battle going on inside us and the heroes need to use up a lot of our body’s energy so they can defeat the bad guys. So next time you’re starting to not feel well and I say you need to get lots of rest, you will understand why! Your immune system needs you to save the power you normally use for other activities so your white blood cell army can use it instead.”
“Now, you have learned so much about your immune system, but are also already immune against myths? Zoe’s mom asked and Zoe is excited to find the right answers. How about you?
Check Your Immune System Know-How
b) No. Colds are caused almost exclusively by viruses, not by the cold itself. However, some research has shown that viruses that cause colds may spread more easily in lower temperatures, and exposure to cold and dry air can dry your nasal membrane out as well as weaken other immune defenses, making us more susceptible to cold viruses. Another reason you are more likely to catch a cold when it’s cold outside is because people spend more time indoors, in closer contact with other people who can pass on their germs.
c) Yes, but soap works mainly by acting as a "glue" between the water and the dirt and germs. Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because lathering and scrubbing hands creates friction, which also helps lift dirt, grease, and microbes from skin and adhere to the soap molecules. You should scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds to give the process enough time to work. When you rinse your hands, the water washes away the soap molecules - along with the dirt and germs they have attached to.
a) Yes, but only if it contains probiotics, which are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your digestive system. (That’s right – some bacteria are good for you!) The immune response in your gut depends on having enough good bacteria and other organisms to fight off the bad bacteria and other germs. You can increase beneficial microbes in your body through the foods you eat, including some yogurt, but not all yogurt contains probiotics. Look for a food label that says, “live and active cultures.”
a) Yes, but you should take it easy. Intensive exercise while you're recovering can further weaken your body and your immune system, which needs time to rebuild its superpower. Generally, people need about two weeks to recover completely after the flu. So, ease into training with moderate exercise and listen to your body when it says you need to rest.
b) Wearing a mask is one important measure for slowing the spread of COVID-19. In addition to wearing a mask, you can support your immune system superheroes by practicing recommended behaviors such as:
b) No, but it can make you feel much better…at least for a little while. Chicken soup cannot cure an illness. But chicken soup is the preferred comfort food for many people when they are sick and here are some reasons:
“I will definitely remember that,” Zoe smiles. “So now the last question is…what can I do to help strengthen my superpower before I get sick?”
“Let’s make one more list,” says Zoe’s mom. “We’ll write down the tips that Dr. Bernard gave you and see if there are any others we can think of.”
Five ways to be a better germ fighter
Zoe is excited about this list because she’s no longer confused about why these actions are important. Now that she understands more about how the body’s immune system works, she wants to do everything she can to limit her exposure to germs and strengthen her superpower so that her body will stay healthy and strong. And she would like to challenge other kids around the world to join her!
Ready for a fun activity? Regular exercise can improve your health and boost your immune system. Watch Zoe demonstrate an athletic activity that you can do indoors to help you stay fit all winter long – along with some help from Bayer 04 women’s soccer team goalkeeper Anna Klink!
Whew! All that exercise can make you very thirsty. You should always drink plenty of water when doing an activity that makes you sweat so you don’t get dehydrated. You can also drink a Power Boost Smoothie, packed with vitamins – the perfect superhero beverage! After all, we have learned that good nutrition is fundamental to improving immunity.
Here is a yummy Power Boost Smoothie that you and your parents can make at home: