Does the Flu Knock You Out for Weeks? Boost Your T-Cells

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
October 4, 2023
Man on couch sick with the flu

It’s common for people to experience the flu differently. In some people, the flu triggers strong cold-like symptoms, while other people develop life-threatening issues. 

Influenza is a virus responsible for about 9 million illnesses, 4 million medical visits, 10,000 hospitalizations and 35,000 deaths each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why is there such a wide range of reactions to the virus? Researchers from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited found that protection from severe symptoms lies in having a more diverse set of immune cells, as opposed to having higher levels of influenza antibodies, as historically thought, according to a study published in Nature Immunology.

Researchers tapped into 206 volunteers (a mix of vaccinated or unvaccinated people) from New Zealand’s SHIVERS-II, a community cohort-based study on influenza-like illnesses. They conducted an initial blood draw on participants six months before flu season to establish their baseline humoral immune and cell-mediated immune functions, two different types of immune responses.

Humoral and cell-mediated immune functions are two mechanisms of the adapted immune system. Humoral immunity is based on B cells producing antibodies (proteins that impede a virus’ ability to infect cells) in response to antigens (toxins or foreign substances that trigger the immune system) detected in body fluids. Cell-mediated immunity activates helper T cells to attack cells infected by an antigen. Participants continued having regular blood draws to differentiate immune cells and learn which ones provided protection from flu symptoms.

Researchers then compared immune cell profiles in the blood of patients with flu symptoms to those who were asymptomatic or uninfected. Turns out, the two groups had very different sets of immune cells:

  • Immune cells that indicate severity of symptoms appear about six months before contracting the flu.
  • Participants who contracted the flu but had mild or no symptoms had a more diverse set of immune cells with a higher proportion of helper T cells. This differs from previous theories that antibodies determined symptomology.
  • Participants with mild or no symptoms also had a specific long-term immune response to the flu, which some researchers refer to as a memory response.
  • Participants with significant symptoms tended to have a similar set of inflammatory immune cells with a nonspecific, narrow focus.
  • Participants with significant symptoms also had a short-term immune response to the flu.

Researchers believe the knowledge gained through this study can lead to meaningful progress in flu control. For instance, it may be possible to identify people at high-risk for serious flu and help them take steps to control it, including flu vaccinations engineered to create higher levels of the appropriate immune cells.  

In the meantime, you can take steps to strengthen your immune system. To boost your T-cells, try to:

  • Drink green tea daily.
  • Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, lean protein (poultry and beef), fatty fish (salmon, tuna and flounder).
  • Cook with fresh garlic.
  • Take vitamin D supplements.
  • Avoid heavily processed and fast foods.
  • Get plenty of exercise.

For more information on influenza, talk to your doctor. Don’t have a doctor, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. MDVIP-affiliated physicians have the time and resources to talk to you about methods of flu control such as supporting your immune system and getting a flu shot. Find one near you and begin your partnership in health »

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
Physician Locator
Enter a full address, city, state, or ZIP code. You can also browse our city directory to find physicians in your area.
Enter Doctor's Name