Will getting sick “naturally” strengthen my immune system?

4 minute read

Parent and Sick Child

“That which does not kill me only makes me stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche may have been a top-notch philosopher, but he was no immunologist. Still, it’s no surprise that many ill-informed (yet well-intentioned) individuals assume that sicknesses in humans follow the same basic principle.

And let’s be fair: there is a modicum of truth in that mistaken assumption. Isn’t there always?

It’s why the idea of a “pox party” or a “measles meet-up” was commonplace prior to the development of their respective vaccines—the result of concerned parents infecting their children with contagious illnesses to help them “get it over with.” And sure, that’s not the most unreasonable way to immunize a child (but maybe just give them the vaccine instead?).

The argument goes off the rails, however, when people assume that accumulated immunity gets stored away in some kind of bodily arsenal—put behind some kind of “break glass in case of emergency” type of defense—to use against other illness. Get sick enough times, then, and you’ll have amassed a general defense that can ward off getting sick from any new pathogens. So, they reason, just force yourself to get sick until you build up a tolerance.

This practice of “natural” immunization has been blown WAY out of proportion in recent years—to the point where posters in online forums are wondering how they can catch colds intentionally in order to strengthen their immune systems.

It’s like doing reps at the gym, isn’t it? No pain, no gain, right?

Wrong. Mostly, it’s just pain.

Let’s first answer the question with another question: if getting sick did always strengthen your immune system, why do so many people still wonder how they seem to be sick all the time? And, while we’re at it, why would some people get the flu twice in one season?

Clearly, there are more factors at work here.

On the microscopic level, there’s no such thing as getting sick “naturally.” To your cells, viruses are viruses—regardless of whether they came from a doctor’s syringe or a friend’s sniffly nose. And while it’s true that your body’s natural defenses are temporarily boosted during and after a fight with microscopic invaders, your body can’t keep up its Code Red alertness indefinitely.

Moreover, specific antibodies are usually only prepared to resist one type of invader. Overcoming one type of illness may give you lasting resistance against that specific strain of pathogen, but it doesn’t grant you invulnerability across the board. In fact, it may make you MORE vulnerable; your body may have spent so much energy on knocking out the first illness that you are even more susceptible to the effects of the next one.

So even if getting sick was like doing bench press reps at the gym, getting sick with one illness to resist a different one is a little like assuming that your bench weight will help you run a faster marathon. The answer: not really. If anything, it’ll probably make things harder.

When it comes to getting sick, that which does not kill you…does not kill you. That’s it. If you’re looking for the “stronger” part, maybe consider changing your diet, getting better sleep and investing in a home air sanitizer system instead.

The answer to pathogens isn’t more pathogens.

IMPORTANT: Health officials (including the Centers for Disease Control, regional hospitals and epidemiologists) have strongly urged that you do not, under any circumstances, intentionally try to contract the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). This can pose serious—and potentially fatal—risks not only to yourself, but to others within your circle of contact. Please take all necessary precautions to avoid infection.

Related Questions

Don’t vaccines contain small doses of pathogens? How is that different?

True, many immunization treatments do use inactivated pathogens. But don’t mistake that for the old-timey “let’s just infect you with a little bit of cowpox and hope for the best” method of medicine. Today, most immunizations (like the annual flu vaccine) use pathogens that have been totally inactivated—with zero possibility of infection. Your body still learns to recognize and defend against the invader to prepare for the real deal, however. It’s all the benefits of immunity, with none of the actual risk.

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