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Immune System Question - Can the same thing get you sick twice?

Spoom182Spoom182 Registered User
edited February 2010 in Help / Advice Forum
I'm home sick today, and I was talking to my mom earlier. She told me to get rid of my toothbrush, because it would have germs from whatever cold or flu I have now on it. This sounded like a bunch of crap to me, since the reason you get better is because your immune system learns how to fight off what you've got. The reason people keep getting the flu, I thought, is because it would mutate and come back slightly different, and so your immune system wouldn't recognize it.

So is it true that you can get sick from the exact same thing twice?

Spoom182 on

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  • DelzhandDelzhand motivated battle programmerRegistered User regular
    edited February 2010
    I'm pretty sure you can get sick from the same thing twice. Of course, the easy answer here if you're concerned is to just boil your toothbrush.

    Think of it this way: If you eat raw chicken and get salmonella, and you put the same chicken in the fridge and eat more later, would you expect to not get sick?

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  • bowenbowen Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    It all depends. But you're right, that's generally what has to happen for you to get sick again.

    Getting rid of things because your body fluids may have come into contact with them is a bit overkill and is likely going to do nothing more than break your finances.

    Would it really be feasible to throw out clothes or bedsheets because you were sick? Toothbrushes you can go either way, but, usually a soak in some alcohol, boiling water, or even fill a small cup with mouthwash and soak the bristles in it will generally do it in. That's a bit overkill in my opinion but meh, you won't get sick from it most likely.

  • Gilbert0Gilbert0 North of SeattleRegistered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Short answer, Yes (personally, I got chicken pox twice).

    BUT by your mom's logic, you should get rid of almost everything you touch. She's over reacting.

  • bowenbowen Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Yeah your body excretes these toxins through the skin too. Literally everything has been in contact with these germs. I'm sorry if you have a pet. :(

  • EggyToastEggyToast Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    You know how on a toothbrush, old toothpaste ends up dried up and crusty by the next time you brush your teeth?

    Yeah, that's how you know your mom is making shit up.

    Neither of you have any basis to know if you actually got the same thing again, as well. Do you know how many illnesses have cold-like symptoms?

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  • bowenbowen Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Pretty much everything. Could've even been two different strains or even the same strain that wasn't immunized properly (taking the full time to rest and waiting a day after feeling better -- this often causes relapses with things like the flu and mono)

  • WalterWalter Registered User
    edited February 2010
    Sweet, I'm in med school studying for my host defense final right now!

    You're not likely to become re-infected by the same germ unless you are immuno-compromised. Once your body finds an antibody (molecule that recognizes a germ) that is able to bind to the germ it mounts a response. This not only involves attacking the germ but making subtle changes to the antibody so that it recognizes the germ even better. Some of these cells that recognize really well become memory cells. Next time you "see" that pathogen, you are able to recognize it right away and cause a huge increase in the number and function of immune cells specific for that "germ"

    Like you said, the flu keeps mutating so the previous memory cells can't mount the strong response that they want to.

    If you wonder why some vaccines require boosters, its not quite the same as being infected with the same germ twice before you are immune. You have to mount a strong enough response to a germ to induce your immune cells to switch and produce memory cells. While a vaccine doesn't always reach this threshold, if you're sick enough to be home from school then you've almost certainly mounted a strong enough response.

  • bowenbowen Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Yeah that's the jist of it right there.

  • LintillaLintilla Registered User
    edited February 2010
    Either way, if you're concerned about germs, you can always stick your toothbrush in boiling water for a few seconds, it can't hurt and won't cost anything.

  • MetalbourneMetalbourne Tube's Favorite Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    I'm going to offer one more thing:

    Whether you do or not, just go ahead and tell your mom that you swapped out your toothbrush so she'll stop worrying about you.

  • GdiguyGdiguy San Diego, CARegistered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Spoom182 wrote: »
    I'm home sick today, and I was talking to my mom earlier. She told me to get rid of my toothbrush, because it would have germs from whatever cold or flu I have now on it. This sounded like a bunch of crap to me, since the reason you get better is because your immune system learns how to fight off what you've got. The reason people keep getting the flu, I thought, is because it would mutate and come back slightly different, and so your immune system wouldn't recognize it.

    So is it true that you can get sick from the exact same thing twice?

    Exact thing is unlikely; however, the cold & flu mutate fast enough that it's *possible* the version on your toothbrush might be different enough to avoid the antibodies you've made against the strain your body fought off

    Which usually isn't that big a deal, but if you're still in the recovery phase from the previous one and your immune system isn't back to full strength yet, it's easier to get sick again

    I wouldn't do it every time you get a cold, but if you get a nasty flu it's not a terrible idea to blow $5 on a toothbrush (or just dump it in something like an ethanol solution and then wash it thoroughly)

  • TheOtherHorsemanTheOtherHorseman Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Walter wrote: »
    Sweet, I'm in med school studying for my host defense final right now!

    You're not likely to become re-infected by the same germ unless you are immuno-compromised. Once your body finds an antibody (molecule that recognizes a germ) that is able to bind to the germ it mounts a response. This not only involves attacking the germ but making subtle changes to the antibody so that it recognizes the germ even better. Some of these cells that recognize really well become memory cells. Next time you "see" that pathogen, you are able to recognize it right away and cause a huge increase in the number and function of immune cells specific for that "germ"

    Like you said, the flu keeps mutating so the previous memory cells can't mount the strong response that they want to.

    If you wonder why some vaccines require boosters, its not quite the same as being infected with the same germ twice before you are immune. You have to mount a strong enough response to a germ to induce your immune cells to switch and produce memory cells. While a vaccine doesn't always reach this threshold, if you're sick enough to be home from school then you've almost certainly mounted a strong enough response.

    I'm in med school essentially studying the same thing right now, so I can confirm that Walter is not a lying goose.

  • LewieP's MummyLewieP's Mummy Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    I've had chicken pox 3 times :( - first when I was 7, again when I was 22 and again 5 years ago. Apparently something like 0.01% of the population (in the UK) don't develop resistance to it, least that's what my doc told me.

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  • RaekreuRaekreu Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Like others have said, catching the exact same strain of a bug is pretty unlikely. The only thing I know of that's actually likely to infect you more than once is athlete's foot. Granted, it's a fungal infection, but IIRC once you have had it once you are actually more likely to get it again.

    If what you had was a virus you're pretty unlikely to catch it again until next year when the strain has mutated enough to trick your immune system.

  • feebsiclefeebsicle Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Yes, you can definitely get sick with the same thing more than once. I've had mono 3 or 4 times, even though you're only "supposed" to get it once.

    You don't need to throw out anything though, just letting it soak in boiling hot water should be enough to kill the germs.

  • JasconiusJasconius sword criminal Flo-ridaRegistered User regular
    edited February 2010
    You can get sick more than once. It depends on greatly on the type of illness though.

    For example, a tetanus vaccine wears off after 5-10 years. Contrast with chicken pox which is pretty hard if at all possible to get twice in one lifetime.

    Your immune system has the capacity to forget.

  • bowenbowen Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    I've had chicken pox 3 times :( - first when I was 7, again when I was 22 and again 5 years ago. Apparently something like 0.01% of the population (in the UK) don't develop resistance to it, least that's what my doc told me.

    Likely your body has gotten rid of the memory cells too, that gave you immunity. I've gotten it twice, it usually happens when your body is weak from something else and either can't activate the memory cells or got rid of them after 20-30 or so years.

  • SideAffectsSideAffects Registered User
    edited February 2010
    So I've taken some immunology, and agree with what most people say here. *Usually* you don't catch the same strain of stuff more than once. You get infected, infection finds minimal defenses, infection gets strong (you get sick), immune system catches up, infection gradually becomes eliminated (you get better).

    Not all host defenses are specific (otherwise we'd get sick ALL THE TIME).

    As far as the "cold" and "flu" are concerned, there are tons of different strains. If you got better from one, it's not going to get you again for quite some time. Without knowing your activity I can't be certain, but I'd guess that you either stressed your body before you were "all the way" better. There are tons of different causes of respiratory infections though.

    On the other hand, at least when it comes to conjunctivitis (pink eye) which most of us have gotten more than once, the eye doctor has always told me to throw out my contacts or eye droppers that may have touched my eye during the infection. Not sure why it would matter, but hey, doctor's orders :)

  • bowenbowen Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    The adenovirus (viral conjunctivitis) is a pretty nasty critter. Easily spread between different species sometimes and can cause respiratory failure in some things if it infects the resp system. Best to wash everything once you've gotten better too.

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  • As7As7 Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Generally after fighting something off the first time, you're immune to it again for a good while but eventually you can contract it again, depending on the disease. Immunity is a very complicated biological process and certain pathogens have special ways of fighting off immunity. That said, you don't have to worry about your toothbrush. By the time your short term immunity wears off the germs on your brush will be long dead.

    You can very much think of it in terms of vaccines. Some diseases can be immunized in one shot. Others need boosters. It isn't exactly correlated but many diseases have ways of tricking your immune system or making it difficult for your immune system to remember their features, while others have features that are very distinct to your immune memory.

    That said, if your brush is alongside someone else's, that's maybe not a good idea.

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  • DecomposeyDecomposey Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Intrestingly, there are about 200 different identified 'cold' viruses. Which means that if you get 2 colds a year for the next 50 years, you'll never get a cold again! As long as none of those 200 mutate during those 50 years.

    So yeah, you're still gonna get colds.

    Before following any advice, opinions, or thoughts I may have expressed in the above post, I feel I should warn you: I found Keven Costners "Waterworld" to be a very entertaining film.
  • Anarchy Rules!Anarchy Rules! Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Sadly there's no simple answer for this because the germs that attack us and our own immune system are incredibly complex. As a lay explanation you can't be reinfected, but this is only the case in extremely stable microbes with readily identifiable antigens.

    In addition to those mentioned by others, germs can cause reinfection if they never actually entered the body such as in food poisoning where it is the release of toxins as opposed to bacterial colonisation that cause illness.

    Some viruses are able to remain dormant within a few cells in the body following infection. When your immune system is depressed then they can become reactivated - examples being Herpes simplex and Epstein-Barr virus

  • Anarchy Rules!Anarchy Rules! Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    In the case of Chicken pox-Shingles, this is caused by Herpes zoster virus. Following the acute skin infection the virus, like Herpes simplex will infect and remain latent in one or a few neurons in the body. The virus can become reactivated to cause shingles. Whereas Herpes simplex will reactivate time and time again Herpes zoster tends to only reactivate about once in a normal healthy individual.

    Even though you have developed immunity to the virus it can survive because neurons have very few MHC class I molecules which are responsible for presenting antigens to cytotoxic T cells (and you don't want to kill your own nerves).

  • the wookthe wook Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    Gdiguy wrote: »
    Exact thing is unlikely; however, the cold & flu mutate fast enough that it's *possible* the version on your toothbrush might be different enough to avoid the antibodies you've made against the strain your body fought off

    they don't mutate that fast. even if they did, viruses have to be reproducing in a cell (not hanging out on a toothbrush) to mutate. it's caused by the RNA polymerase, which has a higher mismatch rate and no proofreading capability.

    colds don't mutate that much anyway; nothing like the flu. there's really only one flu, which you can get over and over (though generally a shot or infection gives you a measure of protection for a few years after). there are 200+ cold viruses, and in general you only get any given one of them once.

  • L|amaL|ama Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    soaking a toothbrush in boiling water isn't a great idea if you're trying to save it, there's a pretty good chance of the head expanding more than the bristles and them falling out. You would be better off soaking it in a capful of mouthwash or something.

  • corcorigancorcorigan Registered User regular
    edited February 2010
    In any case you'd be more likely to reinfect yourself from your bedding or clothes anyway.

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  • WalterWalter Registered User
    edited February 2010
    Sadly there's no simple answer for this because the germs that attack us and our own immune system are incredibly complex. As a lay explanation you can't be reinfected, but this is only the case in extremely stable microbes with readily identifiable antigens.

    In addition to those mentioned by others, germs can cause reinfection if they never actually entered the body such as in food poisoning where it is the release of toxins as opposed to bacterial colonisation that cause illness.

    Some viruses are able to remain dormant within a few cells in the body following infection. When your immune system is depressed then they can become reactivated - examples being Herpes simplex and Epstein-Barr virus

    There is a simple answer for the original poster though. From what he described, he had a cold or flu that he mounted a nice immune response to. He won't get it again from using his toothbrush unless he's immunodeficient.

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