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Why Do I Keep Getting Sick?

Stress and unhealthy habits can lead to more colds, but taking some precautions may help you stay well

Person blowing nose, surrounded by medicines and home remedies

“I have another cold?!”

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Repeatedly getting sick is frustrating, exhausting and disruptive. Just when you think you’re free and clear, another wave of crud hits, and you’re back to sucking on lozenges and toting packs of tissues.

There are several reasons you may be getting back-to-back colds. Family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, explains what’s going on, how to boost your immune system and when it’s time to see a healthcare provider.

How your immune system works

Your immune system includes several organs, cells and other substances that work together to keep you healthy. This system fends off germs and helps you heal from illnesses and injuries. When your immune system notices a virus, it releases antibodies to fight it off. These special proteins attach to the virus and send a signal to your body to destroy it.

Cold symptoms, like a runny nose or sore throat, aren’t directly due to a virus. The symptoms are part of your body’s defense. For example, your dripping nose is one way your body gets rid of bacteria. Once you’re on the mend, symptoms clear up, and your immune system returns to its normal state, ready to combat the next invader.

Why are you getting sick so often?

There are many reasons you may get sick more than the people around you — or more than is normal for you. Some of these causes are preventable, but not all of them.

Five reasons you may be catching the common cold all the time include:

1. Stress

Research shows that short-term stress that resolves or goes away can actually boost your immune system. But chronic or long-term stress has the opposite effect. “Prolonged stress is the No. 1 reason people start getting sick more than usual,” Dr. Vyas says.

Chronic stress reduces your body’s ability to fight off illnesses. And it doesn’t just lead to more sniffles. Long-term stress also increases your risk of many conditions, including:

Stress can also significantly worsen existing conditions like eczema, stomach ulcers and ulcerative colitis (UC).

2. Age and lifestyle

“If you’re older, you’re likely to get sick more,” Dr. Vyas shares. As you age, your immune system doesn’t work quite as well as it used to. You can’t control your age, but you can manage some of the lifestyle factors that make you more likely to get colds.

Many day-to-day habits affect how susceptible you are to colds and similar illnesses. Lifestyle factors that increase your risk of getting sick more often include:

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If you have any of these risk factors, talk to your provider to figure out a healthy living plan that can protect your immune system and help you feel your best.

3. Exposure to germs

“If you do a lot of entertaining or networking, especially if you’re shaking hands a lot, you’re more likely to get sick,” Dr. Vyas says

Children are another common route of exposure to colds. “Children tend not to be as clean or aware of infection control measures as adults,” she adds. Working with kids or having your own young children may cause you to get sick more often.

Frequently using public transportation or air travel can put you in the path of more illnesses, too. Crowded airplanes, buses or subways make it easy for germs to spread.

4. Poor dental care

Your oral health affects your overall health. So, if you’re not taking care of your teeth and gums, you’re at risk for more illnesses

“We know a lot of bacteria reside in your mouth,” Dr. Vyas says. “Your mouth is a point of entry into your body, and it’s also near your nasal passages.”

Mouth infections like thrush or hand, foot and mouth disease can also lead to more colds. Regular dental care is important because it can help prevent mouth infections and create a healthier mouth microbiome. It sounds gross, but a mouth with plenty of good bacteria can more easily fend off viruses and harmful bacteria.

5. Autoimmune disease

An autoimmune condition can cause you to get sick more often, but that’s a result of the treatment, rather than the disease itself.

Autoimmune conditions cause overactivity of your immune system, so the treatments typically suppress it. Steroid drugs are the most common treatment for autoimmune conditions. But because the medications keep your immune system from fully working, they also make you more susceptible to illnesses.

How to strengthen your immune system and avoid illnesses

Want the common cold to be less common in your life? Take care of yourself with good daily habits to help strengthen your immune system. And try to avoid germy settings and situations so you won’t catch every bug that makes the rounds.

Here are more ways to stay well:

  • Reduce stress. Some stress is part of life, but reducing your stress in healthy ways makes you more resistant to all kinds of illnesses, not just colds.
  • Adopt healthy habits. Eating a variety of healthy foods, getting some activity every day and sleeping enough may boost your immune system.
  • Take care of your oral health. Visit the dentist regularly and brush and floss twice every day.
  • Wash your hands often. Wash your hands after you’ve been out in public, especially if you’ve been near sick people. Avoid touching your face unless your hands are clean because you can transfer bacteria and viruses to your eyes, nose and mouth.

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And if you do get sick, try to avoid spreading your illness. Stay home if you can and cover your coughs and sneezes.

When to see a healthcare provider about frequent illness

There are no set rules about when to see a provider if you’re getting sick a lot. That’s because everyone is different. Your “normal” may differ from someone else’s.

“You know yourself and how often you typically get sick,” Dr. Vyas says. “So, if you’re getting sick more than what’s usual for you, see your provider.”

You don’t even need to be getting sick more often to merit a trip to your primary care provider. If something about your health feels off, Dr. Vyas advises you not to ignore it.

“Bottom line, always get checked out if you’re concerned.”

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