Fall Sick Easily When Travelling? You May Have a Weak Immune System

If you catch colds and have an upset stomach frequently when travelling, you might have a weak immune system. Find the causes and how to protect yourself.

A woman sitting on a train while blowing her nose.

Now that travel restrictions are relaxed, you’re probably eager to leave your house to go on a holiday exodus and explore other countries. When sorting out your travel essentials, there’s one thing you absolutely need to leave at home: a weak immune system. 

Do you easily catch a cold or get an upset stomach every time you visit an unfamiliar place or try new foods? If you answer yes, then you might have a weak immune system. Falling ill might have been considered a minor inconvenience several years ago but in the post-pandemic era, feeling sick while you’re out and about could turn into a major health hazard. 

Many people might not realise that they have a weak immune system. Read more to discover the causes and signs of poor immunity and whether you’re at risk. If you do have a weak immune system, you can protect yourself.

What Does it Mean to Have a Weak Immune System? 

The immune system guards the body against harmful substances. It fights antigens or things that the body doesn’t recognise on its own, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. When the body comes into contact with an antigen for the first time, the immune system will store information about it. So, the next time the body reencounters the same antigen, the immune system will know how to fight it faster.

In short, the immune system has two functions: defending the body from infections and identifying foreign substances. When an issue with at least one of these functions occurs, the immune system will grow weak, making the body more vulnerable to diseases.

People who suffer from immune system disorders are called immunocompromised.

What Causes a Weak Immune System? 

There are four types of immunity disorders based on causes: 

Primary immune deficiency 

A person is born with the condition. 

Acquired immune deficiency 

When a person has a disease such as AIDS, cancer the flu, mono or measles, or consumes medicine that makes them immunocompromised such as chemotherapy medication. Bad lifestyle habits such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and not taking in enough nutrients can also lead to this condition. 

Overactive immune system 

When a person’s immune system overreacts to otherwise harmless elements. Examples of this condition include asthma, allergies and eczema. 

An allergy is caused by a weak immune system.
An allergy is caused by a weak immune system. 

Having an autoimmune disease 

This is when you have an immune system that attacks normal tissues. Until today, scientists haven’t yet discovered the exact reason why some people suffer from this condition.

Three of the most common autoimmune diseases are: 

  • Type 1 diabetes 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, or swelling and deformities of the joints: An auto-antibody called rheumatoid factor is found in the blood of the patients.  
  • Lupus: Multiple auto-antibodies trigger a patients’ immune system to attack their lungs, kidneys, skin and other tissues.  

Other rare examples of autoimmune diseases include Hashimoto disease, Graves’ disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune hemolytic anaemia, pernicious anaemia, autoimmune gastritis and multiple sclerosis. 

Six Signs You Have a Weak Immune System 

You might have an immune disorder if you experience these signs when travelling: 

1. Excessive stress 

High stress levels can affect the endocrine system, leading to several conditions, including a lowered immunity. Travelling can contribute to this, especially if a lot of planning and long travel times are involved.

The damaging impact of stress on the immune system is also noted by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It believes that emotional stress and its related symptoms like irritability, difficulty falling asleep and fatigue, can result in Qi Stagnation, making you more prone to illnesses. 

2. Catching a cold easily 

If you seem to catch a cold when you travel and recover slowly from it, that’s a sign that your immune system is weak. In TCM, those with this symptom are believed to have Deficient Qi

3. Indigestion problems 

Almost 70% of the immune system can be found in the digestive tract. So, if you have frequent diarrhoea, gas and constipation, and not because you’re trying new foods in a foreign country, that may be because you’re immunocompromised. According to TCM, people with hard stools, which is a symptom of constipation, may have Yang Deficiency. 

4. Wounds that heal slowly  

When you are wounded, your body’s cells will help your skin regenerate. Therefore, someone with a weak immune system will take a longer time than usual to heal. 

5. Frequent infections 

Since your immune system’s main function is to fight infections, falling ill frequently, especially when you are in a new environment, indicates an issue. 

6. Constant fatigue 

If you should have recovered from jet lag but still feel extremely tired, it could be due to your immune system. A 2019 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found a correlation between fatigue and the immune system. It states that a contributing element to fatigue is the central nervous system, which is impacted in many autoimmune disorders. It is why fatigue is a symptom of autoimmune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

A female employee sleeping on her desk, surrounded by her laptop and other items.
Feeling stressed and fatigued are signs of a weak immune system.

What to do if You Have a Weak Immune System 

Here are some precautions you can take before travelling if you are immunocompromised: 

  1. Stay up to date on your vaccines. 
  2. Be mindful of your environment when travelling, especially if allergic to dirt and mould. 
  3. Consume supplements that boost your immune system. 
  4. Speak to a doctor or physician about the necessary protective measures.  
  5. TCM recommends that you rest well before going on a trip if you have Qi Stagnation. Stay high-spirited and be more active with outdoor activities. 
  6. If you have Yang Deficiency, TCM advises you to get sufficient rest, avoid late nights and to take more vegetables and fruits
  7. A Qi Deficiency can be managed by eating in moderate portions at fixed times even when you travel, exercising, consuming enough nutrients and snacking on ginger candy in cases of motion sickness. 
  8. Monk fruit tea (luo han guo, 罗汉果) is believed to counter headache, dizziness, swollen red eyes and acne.  
  9. Wolfberry and chrysanthemum tea (gou chi ju hua cha, 枸杞菊花茶) can be effective in treating fever, headache and coughs. 
  10. Tuina massage might work to manage insomnia, headache and constipation.  

If you think you have a weak immune system, you should contact your doctor to know what conditions you may suffer from prior to travelling. That way, you’ll be able to travel safely and healthily.

This is an adaptation of an article, “Stay Healthy When You Travel”, which first appeared on the Eu Yan Sang website

References

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2018. How does the immune system work? [online]. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279364/> [Accessed 20 April 2022]
  2. Yale Medicine. 2021. What Does It Mean To Be ‘Immunocompromised’? [online]. Available at: <https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/what-does-immunocompromised-mean> [Accessed 20 April 2022]
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2019. Disorders of the Immune System [online]. Available at: <https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/disorders-of-the-immune-system> [Accessed 20 April 2022]
  4. Britannica. 2015. Examples of autoimmune disorders [online]. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/science/immune-system-disorder/Autoimmune-disorders#ref215519> [Accessed 20 April 2022]
  5. Penn Medicine. 2020. 6 Signs You Have a Weakened Immune System [online]. Available at: <https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2020/march/weakened-immune-system> [Accessed 20 April 2022]
  6. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2019. Fatigue, Sleep, and Autoimmune and Related Disorders [online]. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6691096/> [Accessed 20 April 2022]

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