Protect Your Child from Cold and Flu Season with the Right Defense
Parents can take some simple steps to improve their children’s immune systems.
We’ve all heard about it in the news—the flu has been more prevalent this year than we’ve seen in the past. And although we may have been delighted when we caught “Super Bowl fever,” many parents are wondering how they can protect their children from catching less pleasant illnesses with fever-like symptoms this winter.
The old football adage, “Defense wins championships,” rings true in building your child’s immunity as well. This plan of attack requires a multi-prong approach, like any good defensive strategy.
The easiest way to fight off an infection is to avoid getting it in the first place. Washing your hands is the first and most important step in staying healthy. Avoiding other sick children, including siblings, will also help. If avoiding those who are sick is not an option, carry and use hand sanitizer.
In addition to keeping your hands clean, be sure to keep surfaces in your home clean. Winter viruses can linger for over three days on many surfaces including bathroom and kitchen counters, changing tables and toys.
Frequent cleaning while separating sick and healthy children as much as possible may stop some of the more contagious viruses from sweeping through your home.
Another way to help fight off illness is by giving your child’s immune system nutritional support. For the first few months of a child’s life, this occurs through breastfeeding. Breastfeeding provides antibodies and a healthy gut flora—naturally occurring bacteria in the intestines that promotes healthy digestion and plays an important role in the immune system.
As your child grows, maintaining a healthy gut begins by limiting exposure to antibiotics and providing healthy bacteria through foods. The easiest way to improve your child’s immunity through nutrition is by adding healthy foods to the family diet. Try organic yogurts spruced up with cut-up fruits or, for kids older than one year, honey—local honey is even better, especially for kids with seasonal allergies. You can also freeze homemade yogurt as a summer treat once it gets warmer.
If your child must be placed on antibiotics, follow up that course of medicine by feeding your child probiotics to reestablish a healthy intestinal environment.
In addition, adding zinc, vitamin C and omega fatty acids to your child’s diet will also help strengthen their immune system. Fresh fruits, such as strawberries and oranges—or for the rare child who enjoys more exotic options, kiwi’s and mangoes—along with vegetables like broccoli and peppers are all great sources of vitamin C. Snacks with almonds and walnuts and meals with fish, such as salmon, and lean meats will help support the immune system with omega 3 fatty acids and zinc.
For food to avoid, numerous studies have linked high sugar and higher fat diets to a depressed immunity in addition to other adverse health effects.
One of the most overlooked components of immune system support is the power of sleep. Sleep is essential during the winter, so check your child’s current sleep schedule.
Nowadays, children have packed schedules full of activities. Add to those activities sleepovers, electronic screen time and schoolwork, and children are getting less sleep than ever.
The recommended amount of sleep for toddlers is between 11 and 14 hours; children between the ages of 3 and 13 should get between 10 and 11 hours of sleep; and teenagers, a very busy group that needs more sleep than most are getting, stay healthier if they get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night, not just on weekends.
If your child does come down with an illness, rest is important. During the early signs of illness, the more rest your child gets, the better the chance for them to recover more quickly.
Beyond physical rest, mental rest is also essential. The same stress parents go through during the winter can often be felt by their children. To help reduce stress, maximize the amount of sunshine exposure for relaxation plus the added benefit of vitamin D; provide unstructured play activities; and model stress-free behaviors to help keep your child healthy.
Vaccinations and Antibiotics
Outside the home environment, your healthcare provider can work with you to help strengthen your child’s immune system. Adhering to a regular vaccination schedule has been one of the most powerful immune system boosters for decades. This includes seasonal vaccines like the flu shot, which not only helps prevent the flu (some years more effectively than others), but also reduces the severity of the illness.
Occasionally, despite the best defense, the offense (illness) sometimes wins and you need to change your game plan.
If your child develops a bacterial infection—as opposed to a viral infection—antibiotics are often necessary. Be sure to finish all the medication prescribed, even when your child begins feeling better.
It’s never a good idea to use an antibiotic as a preventive measure or not finish the entire course of medication. These actions can lead to antibiotic resistance and colonization, which will put your child at risk for later and recurring infections.
Although winter can be tough on the mind, body and the immune system, these tips can help support a healthy child and make for a happier and less sickly cold and flu season.
Rajeev R. Shah, M.D., is Medical Director of Inpatient Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network at Chester County Hospital. He earned his medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and completed his residency at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. Before joining the CHOP Care Network at Chester County Hospital, Dr. Shah had 15 years of experience as an Inpatient Director and Chairman of Pediatrics.
Main article, Healthy Through the Ages.
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