About two weeks ago, I finally got over the worst cold I’ve had in years. Incidentally, it came on the heels of my wedding weekend. I was coughing, sneezing and sucking snot into my brain and stomach — and getting a stomach ache from all the snot I was swallowing. Next came the sore throat and general achiness. Wedded bliss! (Luckily, we opted not to go on an immediate honeymoon.)
I asked a friend who’d recently been married for insight, begging him to tell me this wasn’t just a seven-day hangover. His response was mostly bemusement: “Oh yeah, everyone gets sick after their wedding. No one told you that?”
Indeed, no one had. But to find out how exactly my beloved family and new in-laws infiltrated my historically rock solid immune system, I reached out to Dave Westenberg, a microbiologist who goes by @GermJuggler on Twitter.
According to him, there hasn’t been any specific research done into post-wedding illnesses, but we can take the surplus of anecdotal evidence and apply it to what we know about how stress, alcohol, food, lack of sleep and kissing lots of people traveling from lots of different places generally impacts human health and susceptibility to infections. Because as Westenberg explains, “All of these things combine to form a microbe’s dream scenario.”
As such, let’s break down the typical couple’s wedding experience by what’s most jeopardizing their immune system.
Stress, Lack of Sleep and Booze
All three are “major contributors to weakening some of your defenses,” Westenberg says, even more so when they’re combined. “It’s similar to folks who get cold sores when they’re stressed, or young people developing shingles due to stress,” he continues. “These types of illnesses are different from what you might come down with after a wedding, but the reason is similar: Weakened defenses.
“By the same token, if we’re exposed to infectious microbes during these stressful times — or when we’re drinking alcohol — we’re more likely to get sick.”
All That (Familial) Hugging and Kissing
Now that our happy couple has weakened defenses thanks to a sleepless night of stress and anxiety, followed by 12 hours of booze, let’s add some more chaos: hundreds of people who have traveled on/in germ-infested planes, trains and Ubers from all over the state, country, world, etc., and want to warmly embrace the newlyweds.
Besides what might already be lying dormant in the couple’s respective bodies (besides, of course, love and affection), all that kissing and hugging “provides potential exposure to infectious microbes,” Westenberg explains. “Most of the time, this is going to be a cold virus or something similar.”
Not to mention, those microbes could be something your body has never seen before. “People from different areas may bring with them different versions of viruses your body may not have been exposed to before,” Westenberg says. “As a result, your immune system isn’t prepared for them.”
Moreover, he adds, “The more people whose hands you shake or hug or kiss, the more you will be exposed to potential infectious agents. Your defenses handle most of them just fine, but if you keep getting exposed to more and more of them, there’s a risk of overwhelming your defenses.”
Now, unlike pretty much any other scenario where you might be able to avoid shaking hands and hugging for the sake of disease control, you can’t quite get away with that at your wedding. There is, though, Westenberg says, “no harm in taking some precautions that you’d use in any scenario to keep yourself healthy.”
He’s mostly talking about the usual suspects: Getting plenty of rest; eating healthy; and staying hydrated. “And, if you’re getting married during flu season,” he advises, “make sure you and your guests have all had their flu shots well in advance of the wedding!”
Maybe even make their access to the open bar at the reception dependent on it.