Does Social Distancing Impact the Immune System?

Social distancing has become part of everyday life for many people since the start of COVID-19. And yet many misconceptions exist about its impact on the immune system.

This is an effective tool in helping to limit disease spread, especially when paired with other public health measures. Knowing more about how social distancing may impact the immune system can help you in taking preventive measures to maintain emotional and physical health.

The terms “social distancing” and “physical distancing” have been used interchangeably since the beginning of COVID-19, but they do mean two slightly different things:

  • Social distancing is a term used in public health that means to stay home or separate yourself from others as much as possible, in order to prevent or reduce the likelihood of the spread of disease.
  • Physical distancing is the term that’s used to refer to physically staying at least 6 feet from others. Generally, it’s included as a measure along with wearing a facemask.

Most of the general public hadn’t heard of social distancing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic much less practiced it when sick or not feeling well.

Many people think that the lack of exposure to germs due to social distancing weakens the immune system and makes us more vulnerable to infections and sickness. This is called the hygiene hypothesis.

While we do need exposure to germs to build a strong immune response, staying away from germs won’t weaken our immunity. The body “remembers” exposure to germs, and the lack of exposure to germs that social distancing allows does not weaken our body’s “memory.”

That being said, reduced or minimal social interactions and personal connections with other people that are part of social distancing can have psychological and emotional effects. This may include depression and feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In turn, these can have negative effects on health and health behaviors, including being more sedentary, negative changes in diet, and increased blood pressure.

Depression can interfere with one’s job, possibly leading to financial worries and further impacting one’s physical and emotional health — all of which negatively affects the immune system.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines herd immunity as the indirect immunity or protection from a disease that occurs when much of the population becomes immune to the disease, either by vaccination or prior infection.

Social distancing does not go against the concept of herd immunity but instead works in tandem with it. Especially with a dangerous virus that can cause death or disability, allowing infection to spread just to achieve herd immunity is irresponsible.

Social distancing works with herd immunity because vaccines can be deployed to eligible individuals while social distancing measures are in place. This allows minimal contact among individuals while taking steps to mitigate the spread of infection.

It also helps to protect vulnerable populations and those who cannot be vaccinated at that time. Once a sizable amount of people are vaccinated, social distancing measures can be slowly and progressively relaxed.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing was found to be significantly effective and beneficial in reducing the spread of coronavirus.

This is because when people are closer in proximity to each other, airborne transmission of the virus via droplets occurs, but social and physical distancing helps to reduce the likelihood of that.

It’s beneficial because if people adhere to it, especially along with other public health tactics like handwashing and mask-wearing, it’s a fairly easy way to reduce the likelihood of transmission.

Social distancing isn’t just for pandemics! It can also help protect you against the flu, especially when used along with other precautions, such as:

  • getting a flu vaccine
  • properly washing your hands
  • wearing a facemask
  • practicing social or physical distancing during flu season
  • avoiding large crowds
  • maintaining physical distance between you and other people

This doesn’t mean you need to lock yourself in your house all winter. But by taking these preventive measures, you can help to reduce the risk of flu.

Anyone can be impacted by social distancing, but older people may be especially sensitive to it. This may be for a variety of reasons, including chronic illness, loss of family or friends, and sensory impairments that can make things like Zoom or video calls more difficult.

Individuals who are already having a challenging time or those who may need an extra level of support can also be affected by social distancing. Factors that can make isolation more difficult include:

If people need help with everyday activities and they’re not able to get in-person assistance or support, this only has a further negative impact on physical and mental health.

Social distancing, especially prolonged social distancing, can also have significant impacts on children, adolescents, and young adults. According to a 2021 study, the impact on children was significant:

  • Nearly 80% of children and teens surveyed reported increases in anxiety symptoms.
  • Almost half (43.9%) reported significant mood symptoms.
  • Almost 30% of children studied had trouble sleeping at night and had trouble adjusting to distance learning.
  • While some children displayed acute changes in mood and behavior, other children may not show emotional consequences of social distancing until much later in their development.

A 2022 study also found that social distancing caused elevated stress levels and lowered mood in adolescents. Teenagers need to spread their wings, explore their autonomy, and connect with peers, and social isolation during the pandemic hampered all of that. However, some things helped to minimize the negative effects. These included:

  • meaning-making activities (problem-solving, learning more about COVID-19)
  • exercise

Explaining the reasons behind social distancing to children and teens, and recognizing that they’re experiencing stressors from the pandemic as well is important. Finding and encouraging healthy coping behaviors can help improve emotional and psychological health.

Social distancing became a commonly used term with the COVID-19 pandemic, referring to staying at home, minimizing social gatherings, and maintaining a distance of 6 feet between oneself and others in order to minimize the spread of disease.

While this is effective in helping to reduce the spread of disease, it can also have negative impacts on emotional and mental health.

Being aware of the stressors involved with social distancing, especially for children, teens, older adults, and those with pre-existing conditions, can help to minimize negative effects. Using positive coping skills can also help reduce those stressors.

Despite potential drawbacks to social distancing, it remains an effective tool in helping to control the spread of disease.

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