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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Why do we keep catching new flu viruses?

Saturday, June 30, 2018
It’s the war with no end in sight. Each year a new crop of influenza virus appears seemingly out of nowhere. Catch it and the outcome for you is oceans of mucus, dragging aches and pains, and many days of work lost. You may wonder as you’re snuggled in bed with a box of tissues, hugging your hot water bottle, whether your immune system has been slack on the job. 

Why didn’t this apparently sophisticated collection of defence cells recognise the virus as soon as it landed on you, and overpower it? But your immune system isn’t being lazy; viruses have a cunning strategy: an ever-changing wardrobe of disguises. 

Once it gains entry to a cell, a virus heads straight to the control nucleus where the DNA codes are stored. If it’s fast enough, it will disengage the emergency signalling too. You see, if a cell knows it’s been invaded by a microbe it will usually alert the immune system that it’s infected – so destroy me. The immune system obliges: goodbye cell, and goodbye virus. Gotcha!

Viruses hide within cells because that’s there they reproduce and disguise themselves, creating new virus particles ready to explode the cell like a popped balloon when conditions are right (like if you’re tired and stressed). Each virus particle finds a new cell to take over, and the cycle continues. 

Your immune system creates a list of ‘viruses I recognise’. When it comes across a familiar virus, it prods your defence mechanisms into action. This takes time – longer the first time, but the second time the virus appears your immune system recognises and destroys the bug faster. However the flu viruses’ disguise can elude the immune system’s memory. Sneaky.

So next year, when a new flu virus invades our immune system thinks it’s seen this one before and launches the same defence. But the virus particle often escapes detection through that new camouflage. So the immune system doesn’t respond with appropriate vigour. Over-reaction, after all, would create quite a bit of collateral damage. So the response is too weak and you get to experience the symptoms.

We haven’t yet found a way to outwit the flu virus, so your best defences from a natural health perspective are to optimise your self-care through winter with rest and nourishing food, and keep your favourite flu-busting herbs on hand, especially those specific for tackling influenza viruses, whatever their disguise.


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