An immune deficient person’s take on the spread of the common cold and severe viruses

On the day I decided to take my toddler to story time at the library, I was excited that he had progressed enough to be able-ish follow directions.  I knew that he’d lose his mind being around other kids his age. 

We played for a while at the train table. Then we tried playing with the puppets and sharing a chair with another toddler, who wasn’t a fan of sharing space. So we offered her a chair. My son joyously squealed with delight because there were kids to play with and new grown ups to say hi to and babies we could gently poke their noses (like mommy does to him). Then we all gathered in the story time room for the story 

If I didn’t know better, I’d think my son was working a party. He went up to everyone and waved hi and squealed and tried to play with everyone. He was running back and forth between families. All the while the librarian led the kids in songs and read stories. And then I heard it. 

The sound of a child coughing with the gurgle cracking of a wet cough.  I sunk into the ground, knowing where this would go. My son would get sick. And I would get sick. This shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right? Kids get sick. If you’re a parent, you’re going to get sick. So it’d be unreasonable to be furious at the mom who thought it was okay to bring her sick child to story time at the library. For me, it’s a calculation in the probability that I’ll get bronchitis or pneumonia. 

I don’t look like it, but my health kinda stinks. My immune system is crap. I’ll briefly explain a little about the immune system. There are four immunoglobulins, which are like the ammunition that white blood cells make to kill viruses and diseases. If you’re a medical doctor reading thing and I’ve got it wrong or there’s more too it, feel free to chime in. Anyway, these munitions, these immunoglobulins have specific tasks in specific areas of your body. They are called M, G, A, D, and E.  I’m deficient in the first three. 

In my body, immunoglobulin M, which acts as the first defense for bacteria and virus infections, is below normal levels for me. There’s no drug or replacement therapy for that one. 

The immunoglobulin G that takes over to kill the bacteria and viruses that IGM didn’t get  is on the low side of normal, but that’s only been the case for me since I started weekly infusions, which require needles being stuck into my stomach fat. 

The immunoglobulin A that fights against stomach infections and respiratory infections is below normal. No pills. No infusions. 

So the immunoglobulins that are supposed to protect me are not really there in my body. I do have some protection from getting bacterial infections you can get after being sick with a cold. (When you have a cold that “turns” into pneumonia, it’s actually two different infections). My lack of immunoglobulins doesn’t show up on my outside, so you’d never be able to tell that if you’ve got a cold I will get it.  Additionally when I get sick, it takes me longer to get better.

I knew when my partner and I decided to get a kid that I would be sick a lot more and that I’d have no control over exposure to illnesses. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with kids being little incubators of diseases. They’re cute, and they don’t know that they should cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, because they’re lil ones. 

What I have less patience for is adults who don’t seem to remember that colds are spread by the spray from coughs and sneezes and don’t cover their mouths. Or when they don’t remember that their sick kid is still contagious if she has a wet cough.  Maybe I should have more patience, because maybe they don’t know that there are people who are immunodeficient, have family members who are elderly, or have relatives who are immunosuppressed because of other medical conditions. 

It’s not part of American culture to wear a medical face mask if you’ve got a cold, like in Asia. I’ve only recently seen medical face masks available at medical facilities and clinics for people who have a cough and fever. I wore one when I went to get my cough checked out, after I got the library bug. The nurse said that since I didn’t have the flu that I didn’t have to wear the face mask, but he didn’t say whether I was still contagious or not.  That’s the part that remains curious to me. 

Because of my immune disorder and because I have asthma, I have viral face masks (disposable and reusable) on hand the way that other people have band-aids on hand.  It’s just something that I keep around. I sometimes wear them when I travel, especially if there’s someone coughing within the vicinity of where I’m sitting on the plane.  I feel self-conscious, but it’s better than getting sick. With the current Coronavirus going around, I thought I’d refresh my stock of hand-sanitizer (I buy that stuff in bulk) and my face masks.  Well, I can’t because everyone else has bought all of them. Luckily, I have a good supply left of face masks. I did look up how to make DIY handsanitizer. It’s just rubbing alcohol and aloe gel. Apparently, no one else has thought to look that up yet, because those ingredients are still easy to get.

The Coronavirus is scary.  It’s really scary for me. Not only because I’m in two risk groups (asthma and an impaired immune system), but more so that I have a toddler.  He’s cute, so I don’t want him to get sick. I’ve gotten used to the idea that if I got a severe infection that I’d end up in the hospital, mostly because it’s happened to me twice. The thought of my toddler ending up in the hospital — I don’t even want to think about it.

The Coronavirus is sad as well.  There have been so many people who have gotten sick and suffered.  For the people who have died, that’s tragic for not only the person who has left us, but also for their loved ones.  My heart goes out to them.  

I don’t think, though, that we should panic or be overly paranoid about this epidemic.  Fear shouldn’t drive how we respond during this emergency, nor after it. I do think that we should take time to think about how easily this virus has spread.  There was a time when soap wasn’t used to wash one’s hands. There was a time in the West when taking a bath was done sparingly. We have evolved as a world culture to wash our hands and use soap.  I think that we should also think about how we interact with each other when we are ill. Yes, a simple cold does help exercise the immune system for people with normal immune systems, but not everyone has a normal immune system.  I think that etiquette should change a bit. Not only cough or sneeze into your bent elbow, but warn people if you’re coming down with something. Perhaps carry masks with us like tissue, so that if we are sick and someone doesn’t want to be exposed to the viruses that we can wear a mask.  Or … I don’t know.

But something has to change in the way that we live in community.  There are so many of us, and there is so much travel that a virus can spread so much easier than decades ago. What I’m going to do is take responsibility for my own health. If you see me wearing a mask, it’s not necessarily that I’m sick, but it may be that I just can’t afford a cold.

Just food for thought.  What do you think?

Proofread by Cassidy Reyne.

©2020, 2021 Michelle Raab, PhD. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “An immune deficient person’s take on the spread of the common cold and severe viruses

  1. I suspect this coronavirus, which I believe will be with us indefinitely, will prompt a change in sick etiquette. Ever since collapsing my lung in a bicycle accident years ago, every cold I get settles into my chest and lingers as a wet cough for a month (luckily I don’t get many colds). This make me wonder if I fall into that class of compromised individual who get the virus and then get pneumonia. I’ve never had pneumonia, but I frequently cough until my chest hurts. Reading you post makes me want to do a better job of covering my cough. Ever since this coronavirus started, I’ve been stress-coughing pretty much nonstop. Soon, they’re going to kick me out of work.

    1. Thanks for reflections. I’m sorry to hear about your lung collapsing. That must’ve been torment. Your story adds to the collective one that we all have journeys that may not show up on the outside. As far as immune compromised … your PCP could help you figure that out. Take care of yourself!

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