How Do I Boost My Immune System?

by Richard Sagall, M.D.


With colder weather fast approaching everyone is concerned over coming down with colds, the flu, or other winter-time illnesses. It makes sense to take steps to stay healthy. The idea of “boosting your immune system” sounds inviting. But what does this really mean, and can it be done?


What is the Immune System?

The immune system consists of the parts of the body that fight infections. There are three body parts generally considered part of the immune system.

·   The lymphatic system consists of lymph nodes that filter the lymph fluid and lymph vessels that carry away waste materials. Lymphocytes also enter the lymph fluid and destroy bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances.

·   The bone marrow produces various types of white blood cells that fight infection. Red blood cells are also made in the bone marrow, but they have no role in immunity.

·   The spleen filters the blood, removing old and damaged red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and other foreign substances.


What Does the Immune System Do?

Simply put, the immune system keeps you healthy by fighting off invaders such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites and other nasty organisms. When working properly, it quickly destroys the invaders, preventing illness and harm to your body.

The white blood cells are the first line of defense for invading bacteria and viruses inside infected cells. They work by killing and then removing them from the body. Antibodies are the first line of defense against viruses in the blood.

When working properly, the immune system distinguishes your cells from the invaders. However, when not working properly the immune system may overreact to harmless environmental substances such as pollen, resulting in the release of histamines which cause the symptoms associated with allergies

In other cases, the white blood cells may mistake a person’s own cells for invaders, resulting in potentially serious conditions call autoimmune diseases. A few examples are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, and others.


How Do Antibodies and Antigens Fit into the Picture?

Antigens are substances that the body recognizes as foreign and cause an immune response – the creation of antibodies. Antigens are found on the surface of invaders and cells infected by them. Each invader has its own antigens that differ from other invader’s antigens. Even different strains of the same virus may have different antigens. The flu virus mutates or changes every year so it has different antigens. That’s why you need a flu shot every year.

Antibodies are proteins that attach to specific antigens. They help the white blood cells recognize and destroy the viruses, bacteria or fungi invading the body. In most instances, once the immune system has successfully repelled a certain type of invader, immunity develops to that specific germ. This means the immune system is “primed” in case the same invader attacks again and can effectively fight it before you get sick.

Many illnesses, such as the common cold, can be caused by hundreds or even thousand of different germs. That’s why people keep getting colds. Each is really a different illness – it’s just all have that same set of symptoms so we think it’s the same illness.


How Do I Keep My Immune System Working Well?

According to the Harvard Healthbeat, you should:

·     Not smoke

·     Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables

·     Exercise regularly

·     Maintain a healthy weight

·     If you drink do so in moderation

·     Get enough sleep


Where, you may ask, do vitamins, supplements, and herbs fit into keeping my immune system healthy?

If your diet is well rounded and includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, then you shouldn’t need any extra vitamins. Megadoses of vitamins have not been shown to have any positive effect on health or immunity. Similarly, no studies have demonstrated any beneficial effects of dietary supplements or herbs for healthy adults. That said, your doctor may recommend supplements for particular age groups or health conditions, including calcium or other nutritional supplements.


Is There Anything I Can Do?

Yes – there are steps you can take to lessen your chances of getting sick this fall and winter.

First, you can take steps to avoid becoming sick. These include good handwashing. Germs can be transmitted from one person to another by contact.

Try to avoid being around sick people. The problem is that for many common illnesses a person is contagious for a day or two before they display any symptoms.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is be fully immunized and get a flu shot every year. Vaccines work by “fooling” your immune system into thinking you are infected with a certain illness. The immune system develops antibodies for the illness and thus is “primed” to fight that specific germ if you become exposed.

You can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine because the vaccine doesn’t contain the live virus. Yet some people do get flu symptoms after receiving the vaccination. There are a couple of explanations:

  • What the person has isn’t the flu. It may a respiratory illness caused by a different virus, but not the influenza virus.
  • The person had been exposed to the flu a day or so before getting the flu and there wasn’t enough time for her body to develop immunity from the shot.
  • The flu virus is one not included in the vaccine.

Overall, the benefits of being vaccinated for flu, shingles, and other immunizations recommended by your doctor, far outweigh any risks. Medically approved information about which immunizations are appropriate for each age group (adult and pediatric) are attached. More information can be found on the Center for Disease Control & Prevention website



The best way to stay healthy is eat a well-rounded diet, exercise, and be up-to-date on your immunizations. That includes getting a flu shot every year. There is no proof that multiple vitamins, specific vitamins or minerals, megadoses of any vitamin, herbs or supplement affect anything except your wallet.


Pediatric Vaccine Schedule from the CDC

All of these childhood vaccines are given in a series of 2 or more doses, at specific ages.

For some of these vaccines, a booster dose is also recommended at 4-6 years of age.

A dose of flu vaccine is recommended every winter for children 6 months old or older.


Rich Sagall MDRichard J. Sagall, MD, is the president and co-founder of NeedyMeds. He spent 25 years practicing family and occupational medicine. He now devotes his time to NeedyMeds and Pediatrics for Parents (, a children’s health newsletter.

World Heart Day

September 29 is World Heart Day. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women, affecting Americans of all backgrounds. In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds and someone dies from heart-disease related causes every minute. Leading up to World Heart Day, everyone is encouraged to examine their heart health and take charge with heart-healthy behavior.

file4671234819876There are a number of risk factors for heart disease. High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking are major risk factors for one’s heart health. Almost half of Americans (47%) are affected by at least one of these risks. A diagnosis of diabetes also comes with increased risk of heart disease, as well as poor diet, obesity, and excessive alcohol use.

There are different types of heart disease. Coronary heart disease is the most common diagnosis, resulting from plaque buildup inside of arteries. Others are affected by arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeat; congenital heart defects; cardiomyopathy, or weak heart muscles; heart valve problems; heart infections; or cardiovascular disease.

The first step in being aware of your heart health is to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Regular check-ups—even when you are not sick—can give great insight into one’s overall health and is a great opportunity to ask questions about improving your health. Check your blood pressure and cholesterol and set goals with your doctor if they are high. Regular exercise and healthy eating can greatly improve one’s heart health. Start walking every other day, control portion sizes with meals while eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting fats and sodium. Quitting smoking can cut one’s risk for heart disease and stroke, and not starting leaves one at a distinct advantage. Lastly, take any blood pressure or cholesterol medications as prescribed. It is important to take them as directed by your doctor to ensure the most benefit to your heart health. Getting a full night’s sleep and reducing stress can also have an impact on your overall heart health.

One out of every four deaths in the United States is from heart disease. Coronary heart disease alone costs the United States over $200 billion each year in healthcare costs, medications, and lost productivity. NeedyMeds’ Disease Information Page for Heart Disease has information on the assistance available for those in need, including Patient Assistance Programs (PAPs) that offer medications for low or no cost as well as Diagnosis-Based Assistance. Support can also be found in our State Sponsored Program, including the CDC’s WISEWOMAN program to provide low-income, under-insured/uninsured women with chronic risk blood pressure and cholesterol screenings. For those working towards better heart health and need help remembering to take prescribed medications on time, NeedyMeds Storylines app can keep you informed on when you need to take your medicine and you can track your health. Use our website to find assistance or call our toll-free helpline at 1-800-503-6897.

Resources for Caregivers

Are you a caregiver or provider for a family member, friend, or patient? Do you help to take care of another person in need, including an ill spouse or an aging relative? Caregivers act as both healthcare provider and advocate for the person in their charge, and can be a financial resource when savings and social security are not an option. There are over 45 million caregivers in the United States, and there are resources available to help them fulfill their needs as they take on the care of others.


Whether you are taking care of the young or elderly; the ill, injured, or disabled; the difficulty of the work, while rewarding, can be draining. Respite care services (outlined here by can help allay the exhaustion and give a well-deserved break to caregivers. In 2009, the Lifespan Respite Care Program was authorized by Congress and has since been implemented in 37 states. Funded by federal grants from the Administration for Community Living and the Administration on Aging, the program has expanded access to respite care for caregivers of patients of all ages.

Caregivers of veterans are eligible for support from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In addition to respite care, VA Caregiver Services include home-based healthcare for those in need. Respite services and home-based healthcare are also offered by a number of organizations that can be found by searching for “Respite Care” and/or “Home Care” under Services Provided in our Diagnosis-Based Assistance database, though is not offered for all diagnoses.

While many options for respite or help at home are free or low-cost, there are out-of-pocket expenses even when Medicare or Medicaid covers portions of the cost. Call NeedyMeds’ toll-free helpline (800-503-6897) for information on respite, home care, or other forms of caregiver support. It is important to note that with different eligibility requirements for different programs in different areas of the country, it can be difficult to find a one-stop resource for caregivers. If you are having trouble finding services in your area, contact a local social worker.


Watch our webinar about Self-Care for Caregivers. While taking care of others, it is often hard to find the time to take care of yourself. You are likely exhausted, stressed, and struggling to get everything done on your to-do-list. Our presentation will teach you how to practice self-care by tracking your own health and managing your stress using our free smartphone app, NeedyMeds HealthStorylines. You will also learn how you can use the tool to manage the health of your loved ones or patients, including their medications, symptoms, and health vitals.

Suicide Prevention Awareness

Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. Each year over 41,000 people in America kill themselves—a rate that has increased 30% since 1999. Mental health conditions are often seen as the cause of suicide, but 54% of those who commit suicide do not have a known mental illness. Suicide is rarely caused by a single factor, and are also affected by personal relationships, substance use, physical health, and stress from jobs, money, legal issues, and/or housing. In addition to September being Suicide Prevention Month, the week surrounding World Suicide Prevention Day is National Suicide Prevention Week. Awareness is important to end the stigma of suicidal feelings and help more people access life-saving help in dark times.


Anyone can have suicidal thoughts, but it is important to know they are not permanent. Having suicidal thoughts is not a sign of weakness or failure, but is a symptom of profound distress. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be very damaging and dangerous, and should be considered a psychiatric emergency. Other than mental illness, there are a number of risk factors for suicide:


  • A family history of suicide

  • Substance abuse—using drugs and alcohol results in mental/emotional highs and lows that can exacerbate suicidal thoughts

  • Intoxication—more than a third of people who die from suicide are under the influence at the time

  • Access to firearms

  • A serious or chronic medical illness

  • A history of trauma or abuse

  • Prolonged stress

  • Isolation

  • A recent tragedy or loss

  • Agitation and sleep deprivation


Certain populations can be more at risk than others. Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are four times more likely to die from it. Correlations have also been made according to age; people under 24 or above 65 are at a higher risk for suicide. LGBT people are at a higher risk for attempting suicide than heterosexual/cisgender individuals, especially among those who experience rejection from their families.


There are warning signs to watch for if you are afraid someone you know may be having suicidal thoughts:

  • Infographic from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

    Infographic from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

    Suicidal ideation—threats or comments about killing themselves that may appear harmless but can become overt and dangerous

  • Increased alcohol or drug use

  • Aggressive behavior and/or dramatic mood swings

  • Social withdrawal from friends, family, and community

  • Talking, writing, or thinking about death

  • Impulsive or reckless behaviors

The more serious signs include:

  • Putting affairs in order

  • Giving away meaningful possessions

  • Saying goodbye to friends and family

  • Mood shifts from despair to calm

  • Planning, possibly by looking around to buy, steal, or borrow the tools they need to complete suicide, such as a firearm or prescription medication


If you know someone who might be thinking about suicide, you can help by offering to listen. Listening to someone can show that they are cared for, give them a greater feeling of control, and help them feel connected to another person. It is important to remain calm and vigilant of their feelings.

After listening for a while, ask the person if they have thought about suicide. Asking can be scary and difficult, but the answer will give more information than watching for warning signs. If they answer “No,” keep listening; don’t tell them you are glad or relieved, as they may be less likely to be honest if their answer changes. If their answer is “Yes,” it is important to stay calm and not show signs of fear or anger; keep listening, let them know you care, and ask questions about any further thoughts or plans to commit suicide. Get the person help, even if they have not agreed to it. Telling a professional about your concerns can save their life.


NeedyMeds has information for over 5,000 free, low-cost, or sliding-scale clinics throughout the country that offer counseling or mental health services for those in need. Search your ZIP Code for mental health clinics near you, or call our toll-free helpline for information at 1-800-503-6897 (open Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm ET).

We encourage everyone to educate themselves, strive to understand the difficulties people around us live with, and to replace stigma with hope and support. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, it is important to know that no one is alone in their struggle. Call for assistance, whether help is needed immediately or long-term.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
NeedyMeds Toll-Free Helpline: 1-800-503-6897

E-Cigarettes & Vaporizers

We have discussed the health ramifications of smoking tobacco in previous blog posts, but the rising trend in vaping with e-cigarettes leaves some with misconceptions that it is safe or at least less dangerous than smoking conventional cigarettes. Vaporizers and e-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco products among youth.


Some e-cigarettes are made to look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Some resemble pens, USB sticks, and other everyday items.Image from CDC

Some e-cigarettes are made to look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Some resemble pens, USB sticks, and other everyday items.
Image from CDC

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid (or “juice”) which contains nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. While no flame is used to combust and cause smoke, there is an aerosol vapor expelled when using e-cigarettes. The vapor can contain harmful chemicals, including nicotine; ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious disease called “popcorn lung”; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead.


While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found vaping may benefit adult smokers as a complete substitute for traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are not safe for youth, young adults, pregnant women, or adults who do not regularly use tobacco products. With vaping being a relatively new trend, more research is needed to better understand the health ramifications of vaping nicotine.


E-cigarettes and vape liquid are regulated the same as conventional cigarettes and often available at convenience stores, gas stations, specialty shops, or through the internet. Retailers selling them should check the ID of whoever is buying vaporizers or “e-cig juice” the same as other tobacco products. Despite this, a 2015 study found that 44% of high school youth in Massachusetts had used e-cigarettes in the previous 30-days.


The liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes can be especially dangerous outside of the vaporizers. While some vape models use disposable pre-filled pods of the liquid, others require to be filled with the “e-juice” when depleted. The liquid itself is poisonous—as little as a teaspoon can be deadly for a child if swallowed or spilled on their skin. Companies that produce liquid nicotine have been criticized for marketing to children, often flavoring the “juice” like fruit or candy and packaging the liquid in similar eye-catching ways to junk food.


For those looking to quit, consult your doctor or call the CDC’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669).  NeedyMeds has resources for many smoking-related conditions in our Diagnosis-Based Assistance area of our site, including Addiction which may list programs that offer help with quitting as well. For more information on e-cigarettes or vaping, check

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