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Can You Really Boost Your Immune System?

A collection of food and drink thought to boost the immune system.

The idea of boosting your immune system is appealing, but is it even possible to build up your immune system so that you rarely get sick?

Dr. Suzanne Cassel, an immunologist at Cedars-Sinai, says that the concept of boosting your immune system is inaccurate. There's also widely held confusion about how your immune system functions and how your body is designed to combat diseases and infections.


"You actually don't want your immune system to be stronger, you want it to be balanced."


How your immune system works

Your immune system works to recognize and identify an infection or injury in the body. This causes an immune response, with the goal of restoring normal function.

Dr. Cassel says many people think that when they get sick, their symptoms are a sign that they have a virus or an infection. 

However, your symptoms are actually a sign that your body is fighting back against the infection or virus, triggering an immune response.

"When you have a cold, you feel run down, your nose is runny, you feel congested—these are the symptoms people complain about," Dr. Cassel says. "People think 'I'm so sick, this is terrible. Why doesn't my immune system work?' But with every one of these cold symptoms, that is your immune system at work."



Can you strengthen your immune system?

Dr. Cassel says another common misconception is having a "strong" immune system is what's best for your body.

"You actually don't want your immune system to be stronger, you want it to be balanced," Dr. Cassel says. "Too much of an immune response is just as bad as too little response."

Dr. Cassel says most of the things people take to boost their immune system, such as vitamins or supplements, don't have any effect on your immune response.



What you can do to protect your immune system

There are some diet and lifestyle factors that influence your immune response.

"Exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep are beneficial," Dr. Cassel says.

Diabetes, obesity and smoking can also interfere with your immune system and cause it to not work the way it is supposed to, Dr. Cassel says.

How to keep from getting sick

Because our immune response to fighting disease, infections and viruses in the body is so complex, there's a lot we don't know about why some people have a more balanced immune response while others don't. 

"The immune system is really complicated," Dr. Cassel says. "We don't understand very much of it at all."

You may not have a lot of control over how your immune system functions, but there are ways to keep from getting sick.

"The main way to prevent infections is to stay away from sick people, wash your hands and get all recommended vaccines," Dr. Cassel says.



Reducing your risk of exposure to COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Like other illnesses, COVID-19 (coronavirus) is believed to be mainly spread from person to person. 

To prevent illness and avoid being exposed to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, covering your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others, covering coughs and sneezes, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily.