As Lindy Newman, one of COSI's excellent outreach educations, lay sick
with the stomach flu on her couch during the holidays, her feverish
mind began to ponder: if many of her symptoms (sore throat, fever,
nausea) were due to the body's immune response to the disease, what
would happen if her body just left the virus or bacteria alone?
When you come down with an illness, the symptoms you feel are often a
mix of the disease's own damage to the body and your body's attempts
to fight it, and that mix can depend on the particular disease. For
example, left to their own devices some cold viruses would only cause
small irritation (or be completely unnoticeable at all) if it weren't
for our body's reaction - you know, phlegm, drainage, the works.
One of the fascinating things about the world of viruses and bacteria
is how specialized they are. Just among the hundred or so cold
viruses, they all target different parts of the nasal passages and
throat based on the particular mix of temperature, humidity, and
salinity of those parts. They simply can't live anywhere else, which
limits their ability to do damage.
But the true threat may not come from a relatively innocuous cold or
stomach flu, but from every other nasty critter that's trying to get
in. Without an immune response to take down every single threat every
single time, a bit of damage here and there can open up a gateway for
new diseases to push further into more vulnerable spots in the body.
This is why HIV/AIDS is so deadly: with a depressed immune response, a
simple survivable cold can open the door to life-threatening
So the next time you're heaving up your stomach or hacking up your
lung, be grateful for a heathy immune system!