Back to school and childhood immunity

When children first start school or day care it is not uncommon to “catch everything” that is going around as they gradually build up their immunity to common infections. With children heading back to school and day care at the start of the year it is good to remember that for many children their immune system is still coming up to speed.

Babies and children more easily catch respiratory infections like colds and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) because they are seeing all these infections for the first time. The ‘common cold’ is not one virus; it is more than 100 different viruses so your child needs to develop an immune response to each different virus. Children under two years old catch lots of colds, up to 8 – 10 colds per year while adults usually only get two or three per year. This means that when children first start at day care or school they might seem to have a cold almost constantly. Don’t worry, over time they will build up immunity to lots of viruses. Children catch colds at school and also from brothers and sisters as well as other people in your extended family. This means that if you have older children who go to day care or school the younger children in the family will catch infections from the older ones. As a child catches each type of cold virus they will become immune to it and therefore catch fewer and fewer colds as they get older.

Children get the cold virus on their hands from touching their nose or mouth. They put things in their mouth and touch each other as they play. When they touch a desk or chair or toy, the virus can stay on that object for several hours. Another child can come along and touch the same thing and catch the virus when they then touch their own nose or mouth. Cold germs spread really easily between children and this is why they spread through the whole class very quickly. Young children also have lots of contact with parents and childcare providers by holding hands, feeding and touching things others have touched. All these things help viruses to spread.

My mother was big on disinfecting the door handles and light switches to reduce passing on infections from one person to another. Some viruses are passed on when a person sneezes. The tiny water droplets stay in the air for a while then can be inhaled by another person. It is almost impossible to avoid catching infections when people close to us have them. As we get older we have built up our immunity to the viruses we have had contact with already. That is why as adults we tend to not get sick from the virus but might still pass it on to others, especially children.

Teach your child to wash their hands often and to cover their coughs and sneezes with their elbow. This reduces the amount of infection that is being passed around. If they need to blow their nose use a tissue that can be thrown in the rubbish bin. If your child, or someone in the household, is unwell get them to stay home to reduce the chance of passing the infection on to other. Also make sure your child is up to date with all their vaccinations to ensure they do not need to catch the many preventable infections like measles and mumps.

What can you do to improve your child’s immunity?
There are a lot of people talking about immunity these days. The main stay of immunity is to make sure you and your children are getting a good healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. The recommendation is to have at least five servings of fruit and veggies every day. A serving’ is a handful, so a small hand for a small person and a big hand for a big person.

To eat five servings per day lunch and dinner should be half veggies. The other half the meal can be carbs (potato, rice, pasta) and protein (meat or fish or seeds, nuts and legumes). Breakfast and snacks (morning and afternoon tea) need to include a piece of fruit to ensure they are getting sufficient nutrients. I know one of my children didn’t like fruit, but he would take a raw carrot to have with his lunch and maybe some dried fruit for morning tea. If you have a child who truly will not be convinced to eat veggies, or has a limited diet for some reason, talk to your doctor about what vitamins they might be missing out on. Keep sugar and processed foods to a minimum as sugar reduces our immunity. Sweets, fizzy drinks and deep fried foods certainly should not be consumed every day, just an occasional treat.

Most people do not need to take extra vitamins, but if you are interested, there is a previous blog about supplements that have good research to show that they improve your immunity. You can find that blog here.

Keeping active and getting enough sleep are also important to being healthy and having a healthy immune system. Children under one year old need 12 hours or more of sleep per day. Teenagers need eight to ten hours to fully recharge for the next day. Just like adults, children and teenagers should not be looking at screens for at least at hour before bedtime. This allows the brain to wind down for sleep. Children and adults all need to be active for about an hour per day. This might be half an hour of walking to and from school as well as half an hour of physical activity in the playground.

So make sure your children are keeping active, getting enough sleep and eating their vegetables. These basics will help to improve their general immunity.

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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