What is "Immunity Debt" and How is it Affecting this Year's Cold & Flu Season?

"And when it comes to danger, newborns seem to be most at risk, not just because their immune systems are more delicate, but because they inherited their immunity debt from their moms."

In early November 2022, the CDC warned that there was an earlier-than-normal spike in respiratory infections spreading across the country.1 One illness in particular was respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which disproportionately affects children. Because of the alarming rate and intensity of these cases, pediatricians started to liken RSV to COVID-19; the way RSV was hitting kids at the start of flu season was how COVID-19 hit adults in the early days of the pandemic.2 

The reason for this sudden surge? Since so many kids were not exposed to common viruses during the pandemic because of school closures, mask mandates, and social distancing, they're now catching such illnesses for the first time. Experts are calling this phenomenon “immunity debt.”

What is Immunity Debt? 

The term “immunity debt” came about in 2021 by a group of French pediatric infectious disease experts.3 They were imagining the trends that would arise in a post-pandemic world across a wide range of common childhood infections, including RSV, the flu, meningitis, and beyond. They speculated that when schools opened back up, mask mandates were lifted, and other safety precautions were relaxed, the population would be more vulnerable to these infections. Because while those safety precautions were helping to slow the spread of COVID-19, they were also preventing kids from being exposed to these common viruses, which is necessary in building immunity. Not only would this result in more infections all at once when things went back to “normal,” but the infections would be stronger and potentially more dangerous.

And when it comes to danger, newborns seem to be most at risk, not just because their immune systems are more delicate, but because they inherited their immunity debt from their moms. Research shows that like kids, fewer moms were sick the past two years with non-COVID-19 illnesses.4 This means that fewer babies received protective antibodies through the placenta and from breast milk. But this doesn’t mean that a pregnant person should try to get infected just to give their child antibodies. Taking preventative measures like staying up to date on vaccinations and practicing good hygiene is still a superior strategy.  

Is Immunity Debt a Consequence of COVID-19?  

Immunity debt is a hot topic right now that is often linked to COVID-19, but the concept isn’t exactly new. It simply sums up the way our immune systems work: Immune systems that haven’t been properly primed are more prone to infection. But this doesn’t mean that the safety measures imposed by COVID-19 were pointless. 

According to Jonathan Jarry M.Sc., a science communicator for McGill University's Office for Science and Society and the co-host of the award-winning Body of Evidence podcast, “Our immune system is not like a muscle. It does not require constant poking and prodding from a germ to avoid lethargy.”5 Jarry clarifies that immunity debt does not mean that children’s immune systems are weaker, but rather that they are all being exposed to viruses and falling ill at the same time, leading to higher-than-normal case counts. At the same time, the weather’s colder and kids are back at school, creating a recipe for more infections.  

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Cold & Flu Season 2023

Cold and flu season seemed to begin earlier than usual in 2022 with a surge in RSV infections alongside cases of the flu and COVID-19, leading many to refer to the time as a tridemic.6 But it is still expected to persist through the typical end of flu season in 2023, which tends to last as late as May, if not longer. 

There are three recommended flu vaccines for the 2022-2023 season, which include the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine, Flublok Quadrivalent recombinant flu vaccine, and Fluad Quadrivalent adjuvanted flu vaccine.7 It’s also recommended to get a COVID-19 vaccine or booster to protect yourself against multiple illnesses at once. Unfortunately, there is no RSV vaccine available at the moment. 

How to Protect Yourself Against Getting Sick

Getting vaccinated is just one thing you can do to protect yourself or your child from falling ill this cold and flu season. Here are some other precautions you can take: 

  • Mask up: COVID-19 safety precautions may have been lifted, but you can still revisit these measures to protect yourself and others, especially if you plan on being around other people who may be sick.
  • Don’t skimp on sleep: Sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our health. When we sleep, our body releases protective cytokines, which keep the immune system strong and healthy. 
  • Follow a healthy diet: Like sleep, a healthy diet is also crucial to our health. Focus on clean eating, which means avoiding processed foods and sugar and aiming for more fruits and vegetables, which supply our immune system with the nutrients it needs. 
  • Wash your hands regularly: When you touch an infected surface and then touch your nose, eyes or mouth, you allow these germs to enter your body and take over. Be sure to wash your hands regularly, sneeze and cough into your elbow or a tissue, and use hand sanitizer when necessary.
  • Hydrate: Water doesn’t just boost our immune system, stimulate your metabolism, and boost our energy levels–it also keeps our immune systems strong. It helps to flush toxins from the system and transport infection-fighting white blood cells throughout the body.

If you follow these precautions and do end up falling sick, or if your child gets sick this cold and flu season, try Brillia Health products at the first sign of illness. 

When we become sick, our body releases proteins that attach to enzymes in the body that cause a variety of cold/flu symptoms, from coughing and sore throat to stuffy nose and body aches. Brillia Health Cold-Flu Recovery and Cough Control use targeted antibodies to stop the instigation of these symptoms altogether without harsh, synthetic chemicals or harmful side effects. Both products are clinically proven to shorten both the duration and intensity of illness and can be used by children as well as adults (Cold-Flu Recovery can be used by children one and up, while Cough Control is suitable for children over three). 

Without making you drowsy, jittery, or causing an upset stomach, these products offer multi-symptom relief that actually work with your immune system instead of suppress it so it can do its job more efficiently, and they do not have contraindications for people with blood pressure issues, or those taking other prescription medications.

Find out more about how Brillia Health products work and find more resources on building a healthy immune system at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.

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References: 1https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/t1104-update-respiratory-disease-circulation.html, 2https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2798785, 3https://www.npr.org/2022/12/04/1140630219/understanding-immunity-debt-or-why-so-many-kids-seem-to-be-falling-sick-at-once, 4https://slate.com/technology/2022/12/immunity-debt-explainer-rsv-covid-masking.html, 5https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/covid-19-medical-critical-thinking/claims-immunity-debt-children-owe-us-evidence, 6https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-did-flu-season-start-so-early-this-year/, 7https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2022-2023.htm

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