In these times many people are looking for guidance on how to protect themselves from getting the coronavirus. Apart from hygienic measures, maintaining or supporting a healthy immune system is also an essential part of staying healthy. What role does the immune system play when it comes to viral infections and what you can do to boost it? We have asked our experts Dr. Bernard Ng, Physician and Dr. Robert Eichler, Virologist.
Bernard, we all know that certain hygienic measures are the best way to protect us and others from getting the coronavirus. In the media you can also read a lot about the important role of the immune system. Why is it key to take care of it, especially in these times?
First of all, I want to emphasize that we don’t know much about this new virus yet and researchers are doing everything they can to further explore the virus and its mechanisms. But all virus infections have one thing in common: the best way to prevent them is to block viruses from entering the body. Thus, the first strategy is to avoid contact with the virus, which really starts with good personal hygiene habits. Prevent infection before it begins and avoid spreading it to others with these easy measures.
For most viral infections, treatments can only help with symptoms while you wait for your immune system to fight off the virus. Therefore, maintaining or supporting a healthy immune system is an essential part of staying healthy.
Robert, who has the highest risk to catch a viral infection or to develop a severe disease progression?
Generally, anyone can get infected with a virus from young to old. However, people with severely compromised immune systems are more at risk to develop severe symptoms. But this may depend on the type of viral infection.
For example, for COVID-19 it has been observed that children generally show mild symptoms if at all. Several lifestyle-related factors affect immune competence in healthy adults and increase their risk of severe infections which also applies for COVID-19. For example, people with underlying conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory issues, which may include obese people and smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19. And of course, people having increased exposure to pathogens such as healthcare workers taking care of patients or people frequently exposed to crowed places have also a higher risk of getting an infection.
Dr. Bernard Ng and
Dr. Robert Eichler
Bernard: What can each of us do to strengthen our own immune system?
The immune function is influenced by age and genetics, but also environmental and lifestyle-related factors. For example, there is a close relationship between nutritional status and immune function: a poor nutritional status, including micronutrient deficiencies, which is often observed in people with a hectic and stressful lifestyle, can negatively impact immune defenses. In addition, a sedentary lifestyle, pollution and cigarette smoke, but also chronic psychological stress, intense physical stress, excessive alcohol intake, and sleep disturbances and deprivation can weaken the immune system.
In order to stay healthy, it is key to follow good self-care routines. A balanced diet for example is important to maintain a healthy weight and it also provides your body with optimal levels of micronutrients, which are essential for an effective immune function. These may be difficult to get considering our modern diets and hectic lifestyles. Taking micronutrient supplements specifically formulated for immune support can help to strengthen the immune system and support it in preventing and fighting off any infection. In addition, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and minimizing stress help to keep the immune system strong and healthy.
Robert, Bernard mentioned micronutrient supplements. Who should take them?
This depends highly on individual needs. We have already talked about a number of environmental and lifestyle factors that increase the risk of micronutrient deficiencies. In general, people with an imbalanced diet or in certain life stages are also at higher risk of deficiencies and could hence benefit from micronutrient supplementation, e.g. children (due to increased needs) or the elderly (due to decreased intakes). Certain conditions like diarrhea, colds and other infectious diseases or chronic inflammatory diseases, as well as intake of certain medications may lead to micronutrient deficiencies. So, you should always talk to your doctor and discuss your individual need.
Bernard: There is so much information about the coronavirus and COVID-19 in particular available in the media. Which source would you as an expert recommend for getting reliable information on the virus?
Global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), provide regularly updated reliable information on their website and, for instance, developed guidance on the 2019-nCoV, including Q&A, travel advice and updated situation reports.
About Dr. Robert Eichler:
Robert Eichler is Head of R&D Nutritionals for Bayer Consumer Health leading category innovation for nutritionals across all global brands (e.g. Redoxon, Berocca, Supradyn und Elevit). Robert holds a Ph.D. in virology from the University of Marburg, Germany, and a diploma in Microbiology, Genetics & Biochemistry from Goethe University, Frankfurt.
About Dr Bernard Ng:
Bernard Ng is Head of Medical and Clinical Affairs for Bayer Consumer Health. The medical team generates and translates scientific evidence for all Consumer Health products. Bernard obtained his Doctor of Medicine from the National University of Malaysia and practiced as a physician before joining the pharmaceuticals industry.
What are viral infections?
A viral infection is a proliferation of a harmful virus inside the body. Viruses cannot reproduce without the assistance of a host. Viruses infect a host by introducing their genetic material into the cells and hijacking the cell's internal machinery, redirecting it to produce the virus.
Viruses can affect many areas of the body, including the reproductive, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. They can also affect the liver, brain, and skin. Among the most common viral infections are respiratory viral infections: Infections of the nose, throat, upper airways, and lungs. The way viruses spread, their level of contagiousness, the symptoms they generate, and their dangerousness vary depending on the type of virus and the susceptibility of the host they infect.