Search This Blog

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Why's my virus lingering?

In my previous post, written while in the gloomy grip of a viral illness I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of legions of lymphocytes and antibodies, all perfectly honed to deal with this particular virus. I am now at the “lingering” phase.
Disabling lassitude and gloom receded as my innate immune system retired from the field. My energy levels are nearly recovered but my sinuses are sensitive and my nasal passages and larynx are still decidedly damp.  And everyone I speak to who has had a winter virus seems to have the same complaint – it’s gone, in the main, but not yet forgotten. “It’s lingering” seems to be the common theme.
We should nod with respect to the complex interaction that helps us move into phase two. The innate system obviously “knows” when it can let up with those darn cytokines and let the adaptive system do its work. Hence the big leap forward after 4-7 days.
But why does the miraculous and ultimately effective adaptive immune system take so long to finally get rid of coughs and catarrh?
We have to imagine a numbers game. Viruses “breed” by invading cells and using material in those cells to make a new batch of viruses. The numbers produced are very, very large. Every time an infected cell bursts open they are releasing many thousands of virus particles with the potential to infect nearby cells.

The lymphocytes and antibodies are numerous too, but as they start to do their work, the virus production line is well-established so there is a massive amount of catching up to be done. It’s a bit like weeding a large patch of land on which the weeds are already producing seeds and the seedlings are sprouting almost as fast as the gardener can work. In the end the adaptive immune system always eliminates the last few viral particles. And the bonus prize is that it remembers the unique signature of the virus, so if you encounter it again next year it will be despatched without causing a single symptom.

I have just read a long and detailed account of the interaction between the immune system and the virus during flu (see link, below). As I sit here coughing I am slightly cheered by the thought that the sticky cough-inducing mucus in my larynx is the result of the wholesale death of infected cells.

This little episode has reminded me that influenza and other flu-like illnesses do nothing to enhance life. They can wipe out a week, or three while you wait for them to go. At least when it comes to influenza itself it’s easy to reduce the chances of picking it up by having a flu jab every autumn. It won’t prevent every possible virus – but it increases your chances of having a flu-free winter, and that’s worth having.

No comments:

Post a Comment