Flu Prevention: Use Your Immune System! (cont.)

When the body identifies a pathogen (invader) again, it immediately calls upon the memory of the previous infection and sets out to destroy the invader before the disease develops. This physiological mechanism is what lies behind vaccines or immunizations for illnesses such as measles, chicken pox, or hepatitis. When you get a flu shot or measles vaccine, you're getting a deliberate but harmless amount of the pathogen so that your immune cells can react, learn, and remember how to produce antibodies to fight the pathogen.

What vaccines are recommended to prevent diseases?

According to the CDC, the recommended vaccines for children and adolescents include hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, polio, pneumococcus, and Haemophilus influenza type B -- called HiB.

The CDC says seniors need vaccines against pneumococcus and the flu, as do all adults whose immune system may be impaired by diseases such as HIV or cancer. In fact, the flu shot is recommended for almost all children and adults who want to reduce the risk of becoming ill with influenza or of transmitting influenza to others. (Babies under six months do not get a flu shot.)

In addition, everyone needs to update their tetanus vaccine once every 10 years, while those who work in high-risk jobs (like hospital workers) need vaccines for hepatitis A and B. The CDC recommends all children ages 11 to 18 get a vaccine for meningitis. This vaccine is also recommended for people at elevated risk of getting the disease, such as travelers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease.

What causes the immune system to weaken?

Your immune cells can lose some of their protective effects when your body is constantly battling negative health habits such as a poor diet, little sleep, and too much stress. As such, it's not surprising that doctors frequently recommend certain lifestyle changes as a way to optimize the function of your immune system.

What's the most important lifestyle change to boost immunity?

Reduce stress. A steady cascade of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, negatively impacts the body's ability to stay well. Findings show that reducing levels of stress through relaxation techniques, daily exercise, and coping skills helps your body maintain physical and emotional health.