We are in the middle of cold and flu season, a time when we count on our immune system to protect us from illness. So how exactly does the immune system work? And what can we do to help make sure it’s running in tip-top condition when germs try to invade?

The immune system is our body’s first line of defense against illness, and it’s what helps us get better when we do get sick.

Pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw explains that the immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to protect the body. “Germs of all kinds are flowing around us at all times, but our body is in a continuous stage of fighting, thanks to our immune system.”

White blood cells, also called leukocytes, are part of this system. Some of these cells destroy invading germs, and others allow the body to remember and recognize previous invaders.

Maintaining a healthy immune system
To help stay healthy, here are some immune system tips from pediatricians:

  • Get plenty of sleep each night, which could range from 12-16 hours for babies to 8-10 hours for teens.
  • Eat nutritious food, including multiple servings per day of fruits and vegetables, and don’t skip meals.
  • Get regular physical activity of at least an hour a day to keep your whole body strong.
  • Manage stress in children. Make sure kids have downtime to play and encourage them to discuss any problems they’re experiencing.
  • Keep underlying health problems, such as asthma or diabetes, in check.

Dr. Bradshaw says it’s also important to not forget about the basics.

“Wash your hands,” she says. “Keep yourself or your kid home if they’re sick. For little kids, it’s super helpful when they come home from a germy place, like the doctor’s office or daycare, to wash their hands, their face and change their clothes because we carry a lot of germs just on our clothing.”

Importance of vaccines
Even after doing all the right things, there are some germs that can still overwhelm the strongest immune system, and that’s why Dr. Bradshaw says vaccines are so important. The new RSV shot is a great example and is especially helpful for young babies and older people who tend to be more vulnerable.

“Remember, before vaccines, death was a very common natural phenomenon, but vaccines have allowed us to extend people’s lives and improve their health by essentially giving your immune system practice at fighting different germs.”

Booster shots are an important part of the vaccine process, Dr. Bradshaw says. “With each of the shots in a booster series, your immune system is getting another teaching episode or lesson in how to fight that specific invader.”