Maybe it’s just me, but we seem to live in a society where people are getting more and more afraid of being sick. There are billions spent on finding vaccines for even the most benign illnesses and a shortage of flu vaccine is treated as a national health emergency and shows up as the cover story in all the major news magazines.
But getting sick isn’t such a bad thing. Oh, it’s a drag and unquestionably impacts both the person who is sick and their family and colleagues, but it’s impossible to be perpetually healthy and still be out in the world, experiencing all the highs and lows of life, without being exposed to germs, bacteria and viruses. And so we occasionally become ill, with a runny nose, a chest cold or a stomach bug.
Children experience this more than adults, of course, because they are less hygienic, less aware of the risks of being around a sick person, and spend more ‘high density’ time stuck in classrooms and playgrounds in close proximity to their friends. Babies, from personal experience, are the most prone to illness because, well, they crawl around on the floor, put everything they can reach into their mouths, and few parents ever think of washing their baby’s hands with soap.
A walk down the aisles at the local drugstore, however, or a glance through any modern magazine, will suggest that we’re all just one miracle drug away from perfect health and optimal performance. Hair loss? Take drugs. Face showing signs of age? Take drugs. Afraid of getting the common cold? They’re working on a vaccine for that, and in the meantime… take drugs.
In our household we have a different philosophy about sickness. We don’t actively seek out sick children to infect our own, but we let our children be sick, and support their bodies in fighting off the infection and becoming well. That’s not the same as “give them drugs to suppress the symptoms”, note, which is what almost all the over-the-counter medicines actually do. Really. Go in the store and read the labels on any of the major cold remedies and you’ll see that they do nothing to actually help you get better, they just hide the symptoms so you can pretend that you’re not sick while your body continues to fight the good fight against the invaders.
So when our 1yo baby K- got sick with a cold last weekend, we were saddened because it meant she was sick for her birthday, but glad that she’s finally gotten sick at least once in her young life. Getting sick means that her immune system can finally kick into action and fight off an infection. This is exactly how vaccinations work too, in case you think I’m out in left field: give the person a very, very small dose of a disease and then let their immune system learn how to fight it. Then – theoretically – they’ll be more able to fight off larger scale infections of the same kind when they appear in the environment.
I think we’re swimming upstream on this one, though. It seems to me that trusting your body, strengthening your immune system, and welcoming the occasional cold as a way to keep your “troops ready for action” is becoming an anachronism in the face of the never-ending tsunami of pharmacological innovation. You can’t pick up a magazine or watch a TV show today without being bombarded by pharmaceutical advertising, for drugs that address illnesses I’ve never even heard of. But don’t worry, when we have no immune system at all and are completely reliant on the products of drug companies, they’ll still be pricing things so we can afford them. (and isn’t it interesting that ailments like AIDS, an immuno-suppressive illness, show up in parallel to the large-scale introduction of vaccinations and medical “wonder drugs”?)
How about you? Do you take a deep breath, shrug your shoulders, and let yourself be sick for a day or two if you get ill, or hug your children, bundle them up in bed and read them stories while their bodies learn how to defend against infections, or do you rush out to the 24-hour drugstore to buy the latest miracle cure?