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What Happens when you Get Sick

what happens when you get sick
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Everyone seems to have their own sequence of events which lets them know that they are getting sick. Fever, chills, sore throat – these are often part of the equation. But what exactly is going on in your body? Why do we get a sore throat? Why do we end up swimming in mucous? This post will answer some of these questions and more.

What causes a sore throat?

Ok, so a bacterial or viral infection causes a sore throat, but what specifically causes the pain?

When a bacteria or virus invades your body, the mucous membranes often become inflamed and infected. How does your body respond? It sends an increased flow of blood to these membranes. A higher volume of blood helps unleash a greater army of antibodies and white blood cells, which are effectively the foot soldiers of your immune system. Just check out this video of a white blood cell chasing down some bacteria:

We still haven’t discussed where the pain comes from, though. To allow for a greater volume of blood, your blood vessels swell. Unfortunately, when your blood vessels in your throat swell, they come in contact with a number of nerve endings. By pressing up against these nerve endings, your swollen blood vessels actually cause the soreness of your sore throat.

Why does your body produce so much mucous?

Every time I am sick, I wonder about how and why my body seems to produce extraordinary amounts of mucous. Is this really necessary? As far as my body is concerned, it most certainly is.

Your sinus cavities are lined with mucous membranes, which regularly secrete mucous as a means to protect your body. Mucous helps ensnare invading bacteria and viruses, and it provides a good vehicle for your body to eject the invaders.

When you get sick, your mucous production tends to go into overdrive as your body works to prevent bacteria and viruses from reaching your respiratory tract, but also as a result of your body killing the invaders. Think of the mucous as the stretchers carrying out the vanquished bacteria or viruses.

Mucous production can be further stimulated by inflamed or infected membranes. While mucous certainly plays an important role in your body’s immune response, sometimes it can go overboard. Think of this as your body making the safest bet possible. It’s better have to a bit of extra mucous and at the same time protect your body’s vital interests.

What causes fever?

Fever is a common symptom of many infections. It is often accompanied by chills or sweats. Typically, when the fever is rising, you will feel chills as your body tries to catch up to the new baseline temperature. The opposite happens when the fever starts to break – you will have sweats. So, what is the fever actually caused by?

Fevers are caused by substances called pyrogens. These chemicals basically tell the hypothalamus, which among other things, acts as the body’s thermostat, to raise the body’s overall temperature. Pyrogens can come from outside the body, but often they are triggered internally as part of the body’s immune response to invading bacteria or viruses.

There is evidence that the body’s immune system operates more effectively at a higher temperature and furthermore, many viruses and bacteria are inhibited by a higher temperature. So, once again, we have a situation in which our discomfort is caused by our own body’s response, not the invaders.

Hopefully, this article helped explained some of the developments that occur when we get sick. Dealing with an illness is never fun, but it’s somewhat encouraging to know that many symptoms are caused by our body actually doing something about the problem. It could be much worse!!

Keep in mind that this article talks about the body’s response to infection. There are other causes of sore throat, mucous production and fever that may not be mentioned here. Exceptional symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor. Remember, we do not offer medical advice – we are not doctors ourselves!!

Before you go, check out this video demonstrating what happens when a virus invades our body via our sinuses. It is well animated and narrated and it provides a great look at what is going on at the microbial level.


Photo credit: Wikicommons

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{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic January 4, 2012, 1:31 am

    I’ve always wondered about the sore throat! That’s always my first indicator that I’m getting sick… but I guess it’s better than a fever. 🙂

    • phil January 18, 2012, 5:26 am

      The sore throat is usually first for me too. I think I would actually prefer the fever myself!

  • Andrea January 6, 2012, 2:18 am

    I’m the same – if I swallow and my ear hurts, I know a runny nose is coming next and then coughing. Nice to know what’s physiologically happening behind the scenes.

    • phil January 18, 2012, 5:27 am

      Yep, it’s at least a little bit reassuring to know that the feeling bad part comes about because our bodies are actually getting some work done.

  • Marina K. Villatoro January 10, 2012, 9:20 am

    My husband read this post with total zeal. he’s a doc and keeps telling me I need to know the basics of our bodies and when we get sick. this was very educational for me.

    Especially since i seem to get sick often especially when eating in different countries.

    • phil January 18, 2012, 5:34 am

      Hey Marina,
      Glad you and your husband enjoyed the article! I agree that it’s important to know the basics 🙂

  • wandering educators January 16, 2012, 11:21 am

    sore throats are first for us, too, in the schedule of getting sick. it is interesting to know the REAL science – thank you!

    • phil January 18, 2012, 5:39 am

      No problem! Glad you enjoyed the post. Seems like sore throat wins out as far as initial symptoms go..

  • Katrina February 12, 2012, 8:28 am

    I’m pretty sure a lot of the soreness can come from post-nasal drip, too. Drinking hot tea wouldn’t help the inflammation, but it certainly helps clear out the mucous temporarily. Depending on what you’re fighting, the composition of the mucous may serve as an irritant. I know my throat has felt much improved after downing herbal tea.

    Hot water, lemon juice, sometimes some ginger, and a bit of honey are great for temporary relief, as well as giving your body a boost against the infection. Chamomile is quite soothing, as well, while mint (alone – not mixed with black tea) is really nice for the stomach.

  • Christy July 31, 2012, 9:06 pm

    Why do the viruses look so cool and the immune system looks like a blob in that video? lol. That was awesome though. I must not have been paying attention in Science class when we learned about this stuff.

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