No one likes to be sick, and in the age of Covid this hits home more than ever. The moment you get a cough or fever, you have to wonder if it’s just a cold or something worse. And even if it’s not a devastating and lethal illness, if you’re sick with anything, you’re going to be dealing with symptoms that make your life miserable, even if only for a few days. So when that happens, try to take some comfort in knowing that, as awful as you feel, each one of those symptoms is doing a job and trying to help you in some way.
Emetophobia is the technical term for a fear of vomiting and a surprising number of people suffer from it. Though, in a severe form, it’s rare. In general, as much as 8.8% of the population has at least a mild fear of throwing up. It’s not hard to understand, either, since vomiting is not all that enjoyable. So why does it have to happen at all?
Well, from a very basic standpoint, it seems clear that you vomit because your insides want something outside and they can’t wait. And that’s exactly what’s happening. Something has triggered your digestive system to suggest you ingested something bad. A toxin, a poison, something that is a severe irritant and your body no longer wants it around.
There are mechanical reasons for vomiting as well, such as conditions that affect the nerves and muscles in your stomach, or even stress, but that’s a different issue. As a symptom of an underlying virus or infection, vomiting is your body’s way of trying to speed your recovery by forcing the thing making you sick right back out.
With many illnesses, you’ll find yourself running between temperature extremes. One minute you’re cold and the next hot. And while a fever has its own purpose, which we’ll mention shortly, what’s the point of feeling cold and shivering?
Shivering when you’re sick and feeling cold is essentially stage one of a two stage process. The second part often leads to a fever, but they need to go hand in hand. Your body wants to heat up to fight off infection, but it can’t do that out of nowhere. You need to make the heat somehow and that’s what shivering is for.
Your muscles begin contracting and relaxing rapidly. That physical process creates heat. Once your body has reached a high enough temperature, the shivering stops and then a fever sets in.
The process by which a fever works in your body is not something most people consider. You get sick, sometimes you get a fever. On a deeper level, many of us understand that this increase in temperature is your body’s way of trying to fight off an illness. But how?
Fevers can be triggered by a number of illnesses, be they infections or viruses, and more. Your body is reacting to something it understands as undesirable by producing white blood cells in a greater abundance. These white blood cells stimulate your hypothalamus, which is what generally keeps your body in balance. One of the things it maintains is temperature. In simple terms, it turns up your internal thermostat so you get hotter than normal.
As blood vessels contract, your blood goes away from the outside of your body to the inside. You shiver, producing more heat, and your body warms up.
Most viruses and bacteria function in a host body at a stable temperature. They can only handle so much variation. Your immune system forces your temperature to rise in an effort to kill off as much of the invading pathogen as possible and return you to good health. The problem, of course, is that a fever that goes too high can be a danger all on its own.
7. Runny Nose
When you’re sick, everything in your body seeks to get the cause of the sickness out and, more often than not, it can only do that in a gross way. In the case of a runny nose, your body needs to amp up mucus production in the hope that whatever infectious thing is inside of you gets stuck and oozes out.
With something like a cold, the pathogen making you sick managed to get past the mucus lining in your body, which is a natural filter. Your body responds by making something called cytokines, which are proteins that can move between cells and send signals throughout your body. In this case, they signal your immune system to increase mucus production.
Excess mucus is used to clean the mucus lining and flush out any contaminants or pathogens that may have infected it. It’s like your body trying to powerwash itself from the inside, basically. Without this excess mucus production, you would be more inclined to either stay sick or get sicker.
6. Coughing and Sneezing
The dreaded cough is one of the first and most notable signs of a myriad of conditions that plague us, especially during the winter. Cold and flu season are the cough’s natural habitat. Like vomiting, coughing is a reflex action your body takes when it senses something that it doesn’t want inside of it. Unlike vomiting, it’s a little less picky about how it operates.
Basically, anything that irritates your breathing is going to cause coughing. That’s why a cold makes you cough, but so does smoking or getting a nose full of pepper by accident. Your body has sensed something that doesn’t belong in it and is trying to force it out with a blast of air that can actually propel things outwards at up to 50 miles per hour. Sneezing performs essentially the same function.
As we just saw, mucus production is a by-product of many illnesses, so, in those cases, coughing is a complementary action that helps clear your airways to ensure you can keep breathing. On the other hand, various proteins in our immune response can cause inflammation in our throats and airways as a method of combating infection or viruses. A by-product of this is also a cough, since your airway is inflamed. The cough itself may not be eliminating anything in those cases. In general, however, both a cough and sneeze are working to remove pathogens from your airways.
5. Sore Throat
So what tends to come along with a cough, a fever, and excess mucus? A sore throat. Something like a chronic cough can exacerbate a sore throat and make it feel worse, but it’s not typically the root cause of a sore throat. That’s actually something we just mentioned when dealing with coughs – inflammation.
You can think of inflammation as similar to a localized fever. The places in your body that become inflamed when you’re sick get red, they swell, and they warm up. Your body is trying to fight off something in that specific location where inflammation has occurred. Many of us think inflammation is caused by what’s wrong with us, but technically, is your body trying to fix what’s wrong with you.
The inflammation triggers the production of white blood cells that go to the inflammation site to combat whatever infection is plaguing you. When the white blood cells and antibodies reach the site of the swelling, they put pressure on nerve endings. These two things together create the feeling of your throat being thick and swollen, as well as in pain. Uncomfortable though it may be, it’s a sign your body is working as it should to fight off the illness.
4. Loss of Appetite
Getting sick often means losing your desire to do almost anything. And while you may not be in the mood to physically run around and do things, even necessary biological imperatives like eating can take a back seat. Loss of appetite is a very common symptom of many conditions.
Blame the cytokines again for this one, as the suppression of appetite is a method your body uses to focus on healing. Digesting food can take up as much as 15% of the energy your body expends in a day. When you don’t eat, that energy can be used instead to help fight off the illness that you’re battling.
The other potential reason is that, if you’re vomiting because you’re sick with an infection that’s giving you stomach issues, it’s pretty clear you don’t want or need to be putting more food inside of yourself at that moment. So your body is holding off on the desire to eat until you’re physically able to do so.
Pus is probably one of the most unpleasant substances made in the human body. It’s thick and can sometimes smell just awful. It’s also a prime indicator of a seriously bad infection. But it’s not the infection itself, it’s your body’s response to an infection. As off putting as it may be, if you didn’t have the ability to produce pus then you’d probably be in a pretty bad way.
When you have an infection, pus builds up around it. It’s just white blood cells looking to eliminate that infection. Problems arise when the infection is worse than your immune system can handle. For instance, a foreign body can’t really be destroyed by white blood cells, so an infection will grow. Likewise, an abscess may only get larger as tissue dies and the infection grows bigger than your immune system can manage.
Consider, however, that if you couldn’t produce pus, then your first line of defense against infection wouldn’t exist and even a small skin infection could potentially become deadly.
For many of us, getting sick means spending the day in bed. Even when you go to the hospital, they put you in a bed. It’s probably the most prescribed treatment in the world for nearly every conceivable condition. So the fact that getting sick often makes you drowsy makes a lot of sense.
Sleep is necessary for life, even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms of everything that happens when you’re out for the night. But we do know it allows your body to take the time to repair itself from damage. When sick, sleeping is especially beneficial since you’re not wasting time on waking endeavors. Everything from digesting to thinking to moving takes energy your body could be using to heal when you’re awake. You’re just more efficient at healing when you’re asleep.
Research has shown that in worms, certain nerve cells release neuropeptides when they’re ill. These neuropeptides stamp down the nervous system and make the worms fall asleep so they can heal. It’s been speculated a similar process is occurring in humans as well.
1. Sickness Behavior
Sickness behavior may sound like a vague term, but it kind of has to be. It’s a blanket term for that hard to describe feeling when you know you’re sick. It’s everything we already described, and then how you deal with it when you experience it. You feel slow and gross and tired and weary. It doesn’t matter which sickness you have, sickness behavior is how you personally deal with it.
Cytokines and other proteins are at the root of your sickness behavior, the suite of awful symptoms you feel when you’re ill. And while some of the individual things have functions, which we’ve covered, the overall feeling of awfulness seems to exist as a measure of preservation and isolation. You feel awful to keep yourself from getting up and doing anything else. A sort of self-quarantine, really. Stop the spread of illness to others, stop the strain on yourself, and just focus on recovery.