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Immunity Debt Due To COVID-19 Lockdowns

Immunity Debt Due To COVID-19 Lockdowns

Since the start of the year 2020, the world has been battling the COVID-19 virus. While several countries have already started returning to normalcy, the Philippines remains one of the countries with a high number of cases and low vaccination rates. In order to discourage gathering in public, different regions of the country transition between the categories of lockdowns.

Statistics have shown that the number of cases does indeed decrease after a period of ECQ. While staying indoors reduces the spread of COVID and its variants, experts are noticing that people are racking up “immunity debt” because of it. Learn more about what this means and how to avoid it.

Defining immunity debt

Debt, or “utang”, is typically associated with money. It means owing or needing to pay back the amount you borrowed from someone else. The concept of “utang na loob” is unique to Filipinos and when translated literally, it means “debt on the inside.” A similar concept applies to our immune system.

Every time we interact with a new person or environment, the experience is stored like a coin in a piggy bank. Most interactions only add some change, or “sukli”, but it makes the immune system stronger over time. Immunity debt happens because of limited exposure to different environments, which leads to less opportunities for the immune system to be stimulated.

Another similar concept is the hygiene hypothesis. Studies show evidence that children who live in rural areas and experience playing outdoors are less likely to develop asthma and allergies as adults. This is said to be due to more frequent exposure to germs that helps train the immune system at an early age.

What is causing immunity debt?

In the pre-COVID era, most people left their homes, went to schools or offices, and interacted with other people day in and day out. Although we can’t see them with the naked eye, bacteria and viruses are constantly in the air and on surfaces we touch.

Talking, eating, and touching other people increases the risk of transmission of illnesses. However, despite all of the potential dangers that surround us on a daily basis, we don’t get sick every day.

This is because regular exposure to the environment helps to add saving or “ipon” to our immune system. It is constantly working by identifying incoming pathogens and neutralizing them before they can cause illness. Sometimes germs make it past these defenses and cause an infection but after treatment and recovery, the immune system becomes stronger.

Due to months of staying indoors to avoid COVID, some people’s immune systems have become vulnerable to common illnesses. However, experts say this is not necessarily due to the quarantine lockdowns alone. Unlike currency, our immune system is made up of living cells that communicate with each other. The cells have long-term memory to fight off germs we have already been exposed to, even from decades ago. And thanks to vaccines, many people have strengthened their immune systems without having to become infected.

Is there a way to prevent immunity debt?

Immunity debt due to COVID is merely a consequence of long-term lockdowns and protective measures against spreading the virus. Immunity is dynamic and can grow stronger or weaker depending on many factors. Emotional stress, lack of physical activity, and poor diet all contribute to a weaker immune system.

While a number of people are already fully vaccinated around the world, both the vaccinated and unvaccinated should still take precautions. Even when governments lift lockdowns and loosen up restrictions, it is best to continue social distancing and mask-wearing. Additionally, taking care of your mental and physical health is of utmost importance when it comes to boosting your immunity.

Key takeaways

In summary, immunity debt is not yet an established phenomenon. For fully vaccinated and immunocompetent individuals, immunity debt is not likely going to be a serious issue. However, even the healthiest person can still catch a cold or flu from time to time. The best ways to prevent getting an infection is to:

  • Limit your exposure
  • Maintain good hygiene
  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat balanced meals
  • Keep your immunization up to date

Learn more about COVID-19 and other related topics here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Is all this social distancing weakening our immune systems? https://medical.mit.edu/covid-19-updates/2020/06/social-distancing-and-immune-system August 7, 2021

Asthma: The Hygiene Hypothesis https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/consumers-biologics/asthma-hygiene-hypothesis August 7, 2021

News Feature: Cleaning up the hygiene hypothesis https://www.pnas.org/content/114/7/1433 August 7, 2021

The hygiene hypothesis in autoimmunity: the role of pathogens and commensals https://www.nature.com/articles/nri.2017.111 August 7, 2021

The Hygiene Hypothesis – Learning From but Not Living in the Past https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2021.635935/full August 7, 2021

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Written by Stephanie Nicole Nera, RPh, PharmD Updated Aug 12
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