Improving kids’ immunity, one cold at a time
Well, it’s back-to-school time again, and with it comes the return of the cold and flu season. After a summer tending to healthy kids with no more than the occasional beesting or sunburn, it’s time to prepare yourselves for the inevitable return of the runny nose, cough and likely ear infection.
It is estimated that kids average 6-8 colds/year. Not surprisingly, kids in daycare have even more! While it’s true that children’s immune systems learn how to fight infections by catching colds, it isn’t very pleasant when every virus going around leads to illness. Like Grandma always said, “A little prevention goes a long way,” and there are many things you can do to reduce the likelihood that your kids (and yourself) will catch every virus circulating this fall.
First of all, make sure your kids are getting enough sleep. It may not look like it, but while sleeping our bodies are busy growing, regenerating cells damaged by bacteria, viruses and aging, and regulating hormonal cycles. Kids of different ages require differing amounts of sleep. A one-month old typically needs a total of 15 hours, and a two-year old requires 12 hours. The average five-year old still needs 11 hours, while a twelve-year old typically needs 9 hours.
Secondly, feed your kids a balanced, nutritious diet. If you are nursing, continue to breastfeed your baby for as long as possible. Breastfeeding has been shown to decrease the incidence of diarrhea, serious blood infections, meningitis, asthma, respiratory illness and ear infections in kids. As much as possible feed your kids a whole foods diet with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The high fiber found in a whole foods diet increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and helps to protect against gastrointestinal disease as well as some chronic diseases. Fruits and vegetables have higher levels of the important vitamins and minerals required by an active immune system. In general, the brightly colored skins of fruits and vegetables contain the highest proportion of micronutrients.
Be sure to make physical activity a regular part of your children’s lives. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease the incidence of chronic disease, obesity and cancer, and increases the body’s ability to cope with stress. It also improves the body’s ability to fight off infection.
Encourage your children to drink lots of clean water. Water is by far the healthiest beverage for all of us. The cells lining the inside of the mouth and nose are extremely prone to dehydration. When these tissues dry out they develop small holes and cracks, offering free passage to cold viruses. In contrast, well-hydrated mucus membranes are plump and more resistant to infection.
Do your best to avoid unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions and the overzealous use of antibiotic soaps and cleansers. Antibiotics are miraculous medicines when used judiciously, however antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming a frightening problem. Save them for the true bacterial infections that do not respond to supportive care. Antibiotic soaps and cleansers also contribute to bacterial resistance and decrease the protective population of healthy bacteria on the skin. In virtually all cases, standard dishwashing soap cleans as well as antibacterial soap without the concerns about resistance or killing off healthy bacteria.
Don’t smoke around your children. Kids exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to suffer from recurrent respiratory and ear infections and asthma. Their symptoms are also more likely to be severe and last longer than those of kids with non-smoking parents.
If (or when) despite your best efforts, your children still catch a cold, take comfort in knowing that mild childhood infections are an important part of training the immune system, and a cold virus your kids catches today is one they won’t have to catch later. Do your best to ease their symptoms, and remember to get your rest. Chances are, you’re going to need it!