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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

June 18, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsScience Culture

The petri dish effect: Catching illnesses at college

It seems to me that a college campus is basically a giant petri dish. Whenever one person gets sick, we all do. But why are college students so prone to catching colds, and what preventative measures can we take?

First, we need an immune system refresher. There are two general components of the system: innate and adaptive immunity. If the first things that come to your mind when you think of the immune system are sneezes, coughs and generally staying healthy, then you’re thinking of innate immunity.

Innate immunity prevents foreign threats from entering your body in the first place. Your cough reflex, skin and stomach acid, as well as components of tears, sweat, oil and mucus, all work to prevent germs that you encounter on a daily basis from getting inside your body.

Another part of your innate immunity is smaller cells, such as white blood cells, that attack foreign microbes. Such immune cells, as well as skin and natural oils, are considered innate because they are nonspecific and prevent any foreign material from causing trouble.

On the other hand, adaptive immunity is specific. The innate response works in conjunction with the adaptive response to process a foreign microbe so that it’s recognizable by particular immune cells. They then proceed to mount a specific response to that threat, a response that is remembered for future attacks.

What does all this have to do with the college bugs? Every person and every place has their own set of microorganisms that we call the microbiome. You are accustomed to these germs that live with you and most of these organisms are important and healthy. But every time we go home and return to campus, we mix and match these new microorganisms and introduce everybody to new germs, bugs and flus.

On top of that, college students don’t necessarily live the healthiest lifestyles. We’re stressed, we load up on empty carbs and we don’t get enough sleep. It’s not a coincidence that the flu shows up when we’re busy with papers and exams. As students, we prioritize staying up late to study by using caffeine. As a result, your body suffers and your immune system is less effective.

But having a weakened immune system due to stress is much different than being immunocompromised. People with certain conditions or diseases such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes and genetic disorders are often immunocompromised. This means that they need to be extra cautious because they are especially vulnerable to opportunistic infections, get sick often and remain ill for a longer time.

With this knowledge, how can we work to keep ourselves and each other as healthy as we can be?

Vaccines work with both innate and adaptive immune cells so that they can mount a quick immune response that will be remembered later when we encounter the real deal. Despite the rise of the antivaccine movement, vaccines were created for the sole purpose of aiding your immune system. Those who are immunocompromised can’t always get vaccinated, but they do become better protected when surrounded by vaccinated people, a phenomenon known as herd immunity.

College is stressful enough as it is. To be a good neighbor, my advice is to stay up to date with your vaccinations and wash your hands — often.