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Does the immune system improve noticeably over a few years with no flu shots?
November 26, 2010 10:23 PM   Subscribe

Does the immune system improve noticeably over a few years with no flu shots?

Alright so it is socially responsible to take the annual flu shots as a preventative measure. The overall benefits outweigh by far the somewhat compromised immune system and any side-effects from the process.

But if someone was to argue that the immune system gets worse with every flu shot, could you counter this by saying that there is little to no improvement on overall health from going cold turkey on the flu shot? I imagine that it would take decades of going cold turkey to say "yes, my immune system is noticeably more resilient".

Thanks in advance!
posted by gttommy to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
 
But if someone was to argue that the immune system gets worse with every flu shot,

Then someone would be totally clueless about how vaccines work. Vaccines gear up your immune system for whatever disease the vaccine is meant for, generally by including weak versions of the virus that can be easily defeate without making the person sick.
posted by LionIndex at 10:28 PM on November 26, 2010 [17 favorites]


None of this stuff makes much sense. Your immune system does not improve in its effectiveness over a few years with no flu shots. Nor does it become less effective over time if you do choose to get regular flu shots.
posted by killdevil at 10:28 PM on November 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Actually,the whole point of vaccines is to train the immune system to respond to the flu. It's not "compromised" at all.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:28 PM on November 26, 2010


A better way to look at the flu shot is that it is sensitizing your immune system to the various subtypes of flu virus that scientists and public health types think will be more prevalent in a given year, in advance, so that your body's protective response to those flu virus subtypes, should you encounter them, will be faster and more effective.
posted by killdevil at 10:31 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your immune system gets stronger by exposure to diseases, which is how it learns how to kill them. Vaccines are a safe method of exposing you to a disease or group of diseases. All vaccines make your immune system stronger. In contrast, washing your hands limits your exposure to diseases. Washing your hands prevents your immune system from getting stronger. This does not mean that I recommend not washing your hands. Strengthening your immune system is not always the best choice.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:51 PM on November 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


But if someone was to argue that the immune system gets worse with every flu shot, could you counter this by saying that there is little to no improvement on overall health from going cold turkey on the flu shot?

The whole premise is wrong. Your immune system doesn't get worse when you are vaccinated, therefore any counter you make will be incorrect. Except for the counter that your immune system doesn't get worse with every flu shot.

I imagine that it would take decades of going cold turkey to say "yes, my immune system is noticeably more resilient"

Your immune system will never get noticeably more resilient from avoiding flu shots. The opposite is true. The whole point of a vaccine is to improve your immune system by making it much quicker to respond to a disease.
posted by Justinian at 10:54 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your antibody titers for any disease-causing bug in general get worse over time after long periods of time after vccination. The "sensitization" wears off gradually, the titers are a sign of this. Hence booster shots. I am not sure about how your "immune system" could get worse over time due to re-exposure to antigen. The immune system, does after all, contain a whole lot more stuff than humoral (antibody related) immunity. Is your friend referring to the other substances in the vaccine that carry the antigen damaging the immune system, perhaps?
posted by wuzandfuzz at 10:55 PM on November 26, 2010


It sounds like someone thinks that the immune system is a zero-sum game, and that if it is sensitized to one disease by a vaccine then there is less capacity left for everything else.

That idea is wrong. Getting a vaccination for one disease doesn't reduce the capacity of the immune system to fight other diseases.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:20 AM on November 27, 2010


could they be somehow conflating immune system/vaccines with sterilization/sanitizers? While I have never heard anybody with a working knowledge of the immune system suggest what is proposed in the question, I have, however, heard some epidemiologist express concern for overuse of sanitizers, in that they may gradually weaken immune systems by effectively removing too many germs from the immediate environment.

(just a stab in the dark, trying to understand where the question may have originated from)
posted by edgeways at 1:54 AM on November 27, 2010


I have, however, heard some epidemiologist express concern for overuse of sanitizers, in that they may gradually weaken immune systems by effectively removing too many germs from the immediate environment.

You're referring to the Hygeine Hypothesis, but it's not really a weakening per se, more immune dysregulation (I have commented on that previously).

The OP believes that the immune system becomes compromised by flu vaccination. I think that this belief arises not from conflation with the hygiene hypothesis but rather from the observation that flu vaccines can give vaccinated individuals "flu-like" symptoms (fever, headaches, joint pain etc.). This isn't really a weakening of the immune system, though. They are side effects of the immune system responding vigorously to the vaccine (primarily the interferon production).

gttommy, unless you are an elderly man (and I'm going to guess that you are not, based on the demographics of metafilter), then your immune system will do just fine with or without the vaccine. The "socially responsible" vaccinations don't really refer to flu vaccines. They refer to the childhood vaccinations that are demonstratively effective at reducing the incidence of particular diseases in the community. If everybody was vaccinated with MMR, for example, we would be able to eradicate Rubella from the face of this planet permanently like we did with smallpox. But influenza is not smallpox. It resides in lots of different animals (birds and pigs especially), and is not going away anytime soon. It sweeps across the planet in seasonal waves and there is no vaccination program that believes that this will change. Flu vaccination helps the survival of the young and elderly, but the rest of us do not generally require vaccination to survive an infection. There are exceptions to this. The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic was devastating to "young and healthy" individuals. And bird flu, when it gets into humans, is pretty bloody nasty regardless of age. Vaccinations will probably help you if something big and nasty like these becomes a pandemic. Indeed, there is already pretty good evidence that vaccinations helped against the last swine flu pandemic (although the swine flu was no where near as devastating as the first reports implied it would be, and vaccinations had little to do with that). But nobody's going to think less of you for not getting vaccinated. I never have.

As a final point, there are a few things that cause a general weakening of the immune system in the way the you are referring. These include chemotherapy (when you have cancer), poor nutrition and certain infections (measles, HIV). Cigarettes, alcohol, stress and lack of sleep don't do your immune system any favours, either. However, vaccination doesn't have any general immunosuppressive effects, and the (occasional) side effects are not indicative of immunosuppression. If somebody doesn't eat properly because they feel sick from the vaccine, then the poor nutrition could lead to a weakened immune system. But that is a more convoluted argument and shouldn't be used as an excuse not to be vaccinated.

I should probably also point out that yearly vaccination could result in less sick days during the year, leading to an economic benefit, even for people who are least at risk of dying from flu infections.

Hope this helps!
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:54 AM on November 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


Just piling on that the initial presumption that vaccines weaken the immune system is wrong. This comes from a general ignorance of what a vaccine is versus say a penicillin injection. I would even posit that while getting a good whopping case of the flu might not weaken or strengthen the immune system, it almost unarguably weakens the body as a whole. All the organs whose cells were infected and killed by the viruses need to repair and rebuild.

I would consider getting the flu vaccine socially responsible in a micro kind of way- others are correct in that flus and colds are pretty much never going to be eradicated- but that making yourself immune to some flus means that if you run into one, you will be contagious for less time and spread it to friends, family and coworkers less. Will it help the world? No. But it can help make you and those around you less miserable for one season.
posted by gjc at 5:27 AM on November 27, 2010


Will it help the world

Actually, yes. The more people who are vaccinated, the smaller the pool of contagious people to spread the disease around to those who have compromised immune systems and the like. Plus less strain on the health care system because of fewer serious complications from the flu. And young, healthy people do occasionally have serious complications, it's just a lot rarer than old or sick people.
posted by Justinian at 7:52 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


In this case, it might also help to find out what this someone's proof of vaccines weakening the immune system is so we can better respond to it. It's possible somebody read a science article and misinterpreted it or even looked at wikipedia's flu vaccine side effects and drew the conclusion those side effects occur due to a compromising of the immune system.
posted by jmd82 at 8:33 AM on November 27, 2010


Yeah. I am not a doctor, (antibody manufacturing corporate stooge) but I think compromised immune system means dead/nonfunctioning or low WBC's in some form. Antigens in vaccine form just present non-self targets to make antibody against. I think that medical science is pretty confident that you are not going to permanently kill your WBC count or anything by getting a flu shot once a year, just expand the library of things your immune system is familiar with fighting via antibody excretion.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:50 AM on November 27, 2010


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