A: Celebrate the mild flu season and take what we have learned this year to inform future behavior.
Harmful germs are not going away. Illness from bacteria and viruses that make us sick do not “strengthen” the immune system and contribute to significant complications and death. Preserve your immune system by maintaining exposure to good microbes in the environment and focusing on sleep, nutrition, and stress reduction.
The lack of infectious illnesses will not weaken your immune system. Public health measures to combat COVID-19 including social distancing, masks, and extra hand washing greatly reduced the incidence of some bad microbes that cause common infectious illnesses such as the flu. More than 15,000 US deaths attributed to the flu were averted this year. Other common viruses, like rhinoviruses, did not decrease as consistently. Bacteria and viruses that cause illness will continue to exist. Practices such as staying home when you are sick, wearing masks in crowded spaces, and routinely washing your hands remain beneficial in the prevention of common illnesses and may have increased uptake following a year with COVID-19.
One year of isolation will not ruin your microbiome, but likely resulted in some large scale shifts as a society. Each person has a distinct microbiome, the collection of microbes present on and in your body (bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa, and viruses). Millions of microbes actually help or do no harm in your body, many with essential functions. COVID-19 affected several factors that help to build a healthy microbiome such as diverse interactions with people and places while also increasing factors known to contribute to microbiota loss such as isolation and extreme hygiene. Future research is likely to focus on the short-term and long-term changes to the human microbiome as a result of COVID-19, specifically in very young children building their microbiome and those with chronic conditions most at risk for COVID-19 complications. It’s definitely still a good idea to avoid things we know make people sick.
You can preserve your immune system for whatever pathogen comes next. Your immune system thrives on exposure to non-threatening stimuli (like dirt), sleep, nutrition, and relaxation. Consider increasing your time in nature, improving the consistency and quality of your sleep, eating a more balanced diet, and making time for things that restore and maintain your mental and physical health such as exercise. Small gains in any of the categories go a long way for your immune system and overall health.
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