The Pandemic's Effect on Our Immune Systems
The recent pandemic and subsequent lockdowns will go down in history books as a global emergency that rocked the world. Spanning a few years of our lives and having stolen precious time, we don’t blame you if you want to leave the dreaded C word in the past.
However, one concern left behind in the wake of the pandemic is its effect on our immune systems. After all, the purpose of nearly two years locked in our private bubbles with social distancing measures was to shelter our immune systems from COVID-19. So, of course, we were also sheltered from the majority of everyday colds, cases of flu and illnesses we are so used to living with. Now that we’re back to life as it was pretty much pre-pandemic, can we expect to be severely hit by bacteria and germs?
To answer your questions about immunity and hygiene in a post-pandemic world, we have gathered all the research and expert advice to help you.
Life & Germs Pre-COVID
As we all know, the pandemic rocked the globe in early 2020, and things have not been the same since. But what about life before COVID? To understand the true extent of how our lives and immunity have changed post-pandemic, we need to take a moment to look back on how things were.
For example, the entire decade prior to the pandemic suggests that the UK’s immunity and tolerance of common illnesses improved. This is based on research by Statista that highlights the average number of sick days in the UK. In 2010, the average employee took 7.4 sick days, which steadily fell throughout the decade and reached an average of 5.9 sick days in 2019.
The cause of these sick days was attributed mainly to common illnesses, by which we mean cold and flu, sickness and diarrhoea and discomfort and reactions caused by allergies.
Public Cleanliness and Attitudes Pre-COVID
Retrospectively, there seemed to be waves of different sickness bugs and seasonal flu cases that spread throughout our communities with domino effects. For example, if one person brought the common cold into an office setting, soon enough, more and more employees would be struck by the same symptoms. Similarly, children in a nursery or school setting would be almost guaranteed to pick up the same illnesses as brought in by each other.
This is not surprising when we look at the data behind the cleanliness of the average UK office space. In a survey carried out pre-COVID, the office hot spots for germs and bacteria were found to be sink taps, microwave doors, kettle handles and keyboards. These surfaces are touched by countless numbers of people a countless number of times throughout the average working day.
But how dirty is dirty? To put it into perspective, a similar survey found that an office kettle handle holds twelve times as much bacteria as a communal toilet seat.
So, while the number of sick days taken was on a partial decline over the previous decade, it is still clear that bacteria and germs were rife in public spaces.
How did the pandemic change that?
Has Our Immunity Been Altered by the Pandemic?
If you have ever heard of the hygiene hypothesis, then this may have led you to question what kind of effect the pandemic might have on our immune systems.
If you’re unaware of the hygiene hypothesis, let us break it down for you. Simply put, the hygiene hypothesis is the belief that exposure to bacteria, parasites and viruses in childhood allows our immune systems to develop. So, it stands to reason to believe that a child sheltered from these types of bacteria and germs will not have as strong an immune system as their bodies won’t have learnt to fight them off.
With this thinking, many people have questioned post-pandemic if our bodies are now weakened from isolation caused by lockdown and increased social distancing measures.
However, we want to put your mind to ease and let you know that doctors are not concerned about an impact on adult immunity as a cause of isolation. While the common cold may have hit you upon your return to the office, this is not a cause for concern and is almost to be expected.
As you emerged from your pandemic bubble and got back to life pre-pandemic, you were bound to pick up a sniffly nose. But it is the reappearance of this cycle of picking up bacteria and illnesses that we are no longer used to as we were so focused on COVID. While it may seem like you are constantly ill as a result, this isn’t a fault of your immunity. Rather it is your body getting used to reintroducing germs and bacteria into your everyday life.
Boosting Children’s Immunity
While adult immune systems might be tasked with getting back into the swing of things following the pandemic, the same cannot be said for children.
As per the hygiene hypothesis, children born during the pandemic and lockdown will not have been exposed to the natural and usual bacteria they should have at an early age. With no play dates, trips to soft play or mornings spent in nursery, they have not been exposed to new bacteria to build up a healthy gut microbiome.
To support your children post-pandemic, you should do your best to boost their immune systems. Here are a few tips to help you get started;
- Following the rainbow method, you should follow a healthy and nutritious diet for your children. This means including as many different fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet as your budget allows.
- In addition to a rainbow diet, you should also look at ways to promote gut health through food. Feeding young children foods with plenty of microbiome-supporting probiotics, like yoghurts and sourdough bread, will help to regulate the immune system.
- You can promote a healthier immune system by ensuring your children are getting enough sleep. When we sleep, that's our body's time to regenerate itself, so maintaining a healthy sleep routine is essential for immune function.
How the Pandemic Shaped our Hygiene Habits
One positive to take away from the pandemic was the increased awareness of our hygiene habits. As mentioned earlier, the state of public spaces such as shared offices was a bombsite of bacteria that almost guaranteed the spread of germs and sickness.
But now that we are aware of how quickly and dangerously germs can spread, we have seen for our own eyes the consequences of poor hygiene.
Not only are we more cautious about the length of time we wash our hands and how we’re catching our sneezes. Now people are taking advantage of public hand washing and sanitising stations as much as possible. Research has found that the number of times the average person washed their hands in a single day has jumped from five times pre-COVID to eight. We’re also washing our hands for longer, thanks to the trusty ‘Happy Birthday’ song method!
It’s also good news for the cleanliness of the office, as now 45% of office workers wash their hands immediately after using their keyboards. Just remember to keep your hands away from your face as much as possible while you work.
Read about how coronavirus impacted our hygiene habits to learn more on this subject and its link to our immunity.
While we may be more conscious of our hygiene habits thanks to COVID-19, for some, hygiene anxiety is another lingering side effect.
After spending months on end locked inside our own homes and listening to the news list numbers of deaths, hospitalisations and new findings, it is no surprise that many of the public have been overly cautious when returning to normality. In fact, this has a name and is referred to as ‘re-entry syndrome’.
A recent survey found the results of these fears, with 70% of participants claiming they no longer choose to visit restaurants, cafes or bars if they need to use the washroom facilities. It also highlighted that 58% of shoppers had changed their habits as they no longer felt comfortable with their favourite store’s cleanliness.
By now, we hope we have alleviated your concerns surrounding your immune system and its journey from pre to post COVID.
We also hope that our guide has got you thinking about more considerations around your hygiene and health so that you can get back on track to living life to the fullest. Plus, the safest!
If you have a business or premises and want to create a cleaner and safer environment for your team and guests, look into ways to promote more hygienic public spaces. With the help of Woosh Washrooms, we can help you transform public spaces and washrooms with facilities that minimise the spread of germs and promote more hygienic habits.
For more help or further advice, following our guide, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a member of our expert team for more information.