Why do respiratory infections happen?
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
It's that time of the year again: It seems like someone you know (or yourself) is dealing with a respiratory infection.
Common colds, flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, and infections affecting the ear, nose, throat, or sinuses are rampant. This year doesn't appear to be any different.
As I discussed in a previous column entitled "A cold can be a sign of a healthy immune system", having one to two colds or flu per year can be a sign of a healthy immune system. But when an infection becomes more frequent, seems to drag on, or is more serious such as sinus or ear infections, strep throat, bronchitis, and pneumonia, you may have asked yourself one of the following questions...
- Why am I more prone to infections compared to someone else?
- Why does it affect me more in one area of the respiratory system (ears, nose, throat, sinuses or lungs)?
- Is fighting a respiratory infection all about boosting the immune system? Is it as simple as using natural remedies such as echinacea or vitamin C that are commonly used for this purpose?
- Can suppressing symptoms during the infection cause harm or decrease your ability to fight off infections?
- Once the initial infection has passed, can pro-active measures be taken to prevent and lessen the severity of future infections?
To help answer these questions, I would like to take this opportunity (again!) to highlight the importance of taking a dual approach in the treatment of any disease (click here to view flow chart diagram). This topic was discussed in great detail in a previous column entitled "Address the underlying problem, not just symptoms". Let's do a quick review of this approach so that we can better understand the reasoning behind a multi-faceted treatment plan for respiratory infections and preventing future occurrences.
As shown in the diagram, a delicate balance must be achieved between providing relief (left side of diagram) and fixing the underlying problem(s) (right side).
During active infections determining the location(s) and type of invader, whether viral, bacterial or fungal is of upmost importance.
The diagnosis of respiratory infection is difficult and should be evaluated based on the greater context of your care. Work with your medical doctor and naturopathic doctor to make a complete assessment of any active or chronic/reoccurring infections.
In addition to standard lab tests and complaint-oriented physical examinations, it is important to include a complete review of all symptoms (not just a patient's chief concern) and of all systems and organs in the body. Only when we look at the whole can we gain a complete perspective of one's state of health.
Respiratory infections can be addressed with antibiotics (where indicated) and/or using combination of botanical anti-microbials, immune boosters, as well as naturopathic remedies that support/strengthen the respiratory system.
Because many symptoms are often uncomfortable, especially with acute infections, I maintain the importance to palliate symptoms (whether via pharmaceutical medications or natural means). This provides increased comfort in a patient's life while the underlying causes are addressed.
Symptoms such as fever, mucus production, sneeze/cough reflex, body aches are caused by our immune system inflammatory response in its attempt to fight off microbes.
Many symptoms (fever, mucus, sneeze/cough reflex) are important physiological processes created by our body to resolve the infection. The overuse of antibiotics, anti-fever medications (eg Tylenol), decongestants and corticosteroids medications (eg Nasonex) can leave someone more prone to subsequent infections. Overly suppressing symptoms can even decrease one's ability to fight off the current infection.
Use these medicines only when needed to control dangerously high fevers, during risky bacterial infections, when symptoms make you feel miserable (especially if you aren't able to rest and sleep) or when you get exhausted because of a lingering infection.
On the other hand, when we naturally support the body to produce antibodies to mount an attack and successfully fight off the infection, the body actually becomes stronger in the process. The infection provides protection for future infections by creating 'memory' white blood cells. Mucus membranes (the lining of the respiratory system), the lymphatic system and white blood cells undergo a tune up.
Any treatment approach should also include preventative medicine (right side of the flow chart). You and your doctor should act as detectives. Look for the reasons why your body has become overly prone to respiratory infections.
The most important causes that lead to immune dysfunction and increased risks of respiratory infections have been compiled in the following table. Review these factors and inspire yourself to make changes in one or more of these categories. Even small changes can make a big difference in the long run.
Causes of Immune Dysfunction
1. Causes due to an imbalanced lifestyle:
- Chronic food allergies/intolerances
- Nutritional deficiencies, poor diet, excess alcohol, excess sugar (& simple carbs)
- Stress, worry, mental/emotional issues
- Genetics predispositions
- Smoking, recreational drug use
- Lack of sleep, shift work
- Excess work (mental or physical), states of exhaustion (‘burnout’)
- Excess or lack of exercise
- Pharmaceutical medication side-effects (especially antibiotic overuse/misuse)
2. Causes due to imbalanced bodily systems:
- Inflammatory conditions (Crohn’s or colitis, cancer, obesity, etc…)
- Previous serious acute respiratory infection (eg pneumonia)
- Chronic respiratory mucous membrane irritation (eg runny nose, post-nasal drip, etc…)
- Chronic viral infections (HIV, herpes, etc…)
- Autoimmune disease
- Hormone imbalances (especially cortisol)
- Depression, loneliness
- Liver congestion/inflammation
- Poor digestive health (dysbiosis, chronic constipation, diarrhea, etc.)
Remember that a healthy immune system is best obtained through a healthy body. Whether it's hormone imbalances, food allergies, stress, or the presence of chronic diseases in the body, the key to preventing a respiratory infection is to understand and address your medical predispositions to a lowered immunity.
This new vision aims to take your health further than symptom management. Providing relief when needed and adopting the right side of the flow chart moves a patient towards a long-term cure.
See Part 2 of this article entitled "Take a common sense approach to infections".
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Tuesday November 29th, 2011 in Times & Transcript.
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