How to Keep Kids Healthy During Cold & Flu Season
As the kids become firmly immersed in the back to school routine of classes and after-school activities, and temperatures drop as fall’s presence makes itself known, one thing is imminent: cold and flu season (you thought I was going to say Starbucks Pumpkin Spiced Latte, didn’t you?). The Center for Disease Control estimates that over 10 million people see a health care provider for respiratory-related symptoms every year. The “respiratory season” is starting earlier (December in 2016 and early November in 2017), lasting longer, and affecting more people every year. It’s important to remember that there are a variety of illnesses that can affect your family outside of the common cold and flu culprits. From pneumonia and bronchitis to croup and RSV as well as stomach bugs, pink eye, ear infections, and strep throat, there seems to be a malady around every corner just waiting to infect your child.
The good news is there are some easy steps you can take to help your child stay healthy this cold and flu season. The best defense, after all, is a good offense.
I’m going to admit- I’m a lax parent when it comes to hand washing. I believe exposure to germs is vital to building immunity and never went too crazy wiping down handles, grocery carts, or the toys at Mommy & Me, but I consistently make sure that when my son gets home from a playgroup, daycare or school that the first thing he does is wash his hands. Hand washing is also a requirement before eating and after using public restrooms. The reason hand washing is so important is that most viruses and bacteria come into our bodies from mucous membranes in our nose, mouths, and eyes. Kids especially are bad about continually having their hands on their faces and in their mouths as well as touching the faces of siblings, friends, and parents.
To get the most benefits out of hand washing, make sure your child is washing correctly with soap and water, rubbing their hands together vigorously for 20 seconds and getting the back of the hands and between the fingers. My son and I typically sing a song or practice counting to make sure he is washing his hands for the right amount of time. I also keep his nails clipped short and clean them nightly to ensure nothing is lingering under them.
Get enough sleep: It’s no surprise that Americans are not getting enough sleep, and this isn’t unique to adults. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) reports that more than a third of people are not getting enough sleep and most don’t even know what the recommendation is for how many hours of sleep they or their child should be getting. Not getting enough sleep can lead to a host of issues including increased risk for obesity, diabetes, depression, behavior and learning problems, and yes, an impaired immune system.
I could give you the scientific explanation involving levels of T-cells, cytokines, and serotonin secretion but the bottom line is sleep deprivation suppresses the immune system. It makes the body more susceptible to viruses and bacteria. Not only does lack of sleep make us more likely to get sick but it also makes it harder for us to fight off illnesses when we are exposed to them.
So how much sleep does your child need? Probably more than you think. In a 24-hour period (this is including naps), the AASM recommends that teenagers between 13-18 should be sleeping 8-10 hours and school-age children 6 -12 years old need 9-12 hours per day. One of the hardest groups is children 3-5 years old because they typically drop their naps at this age but still require 10-13 hours of sleep per day.
Eat immune boosting foods
A quick Google search turns up no shortage of different lists of which foods are the best immune boosters. The truth is, however, that all natural, whole foods will contain some vitamin, mineral, or essential nutrient that is going to help keep your child healthy. Whether your family is gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, or just eats whatever is around, as long as you are eating whole foods, and staying away from the processed and artificial foods that make up the majority of the Standard American Diet, you should be able to get all the essential vitamins and minerals to help keep their immune system healthy.
Vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, as well as folate, selenium, iron, omegas, and zinc, are all proven to provide support to the immune system and the best way to get these is through the food we eat. For instance, Vitamin C is contained in a variety of food, including leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach as well as citrus fruits, strawberries, and papayas, to name a few. Making sure your family is eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, preferably fresh or frozen, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains will ensure they are getting all the essential nutrients to aid their immune system. Add some cold-water fish such as salmon or tuna for a big dose of omegas and vitamin B6 and don’t forget to utilize aromatics, which are a great base to many soups, stews, and stocks. Garlic, onion, and ginger are especially immune system friendly.
We all know that kids can be picky eaters so don’t fret if you are having trouble getting a range of foods in their diet. There are days when my son refuses to eat anything but waffles, or he goes on a snacking streak where he won’t eat a full meal and instead subsists by snacking all day. During these phases, I just keep offering him a variety of foods and hope that he takes me up on something. I'll also make sure that the only foods in the house are healthy ones, so he has no other option but to eat something good for him- this actually led to two days of him eating nothing but raw onions, apples, and pumpkin seeds once.
The critical thing to remember is that a quick burst of vitamins and minerals is not going to be effective at strengthening and supporting your immune system- you need a balanced mix over time to have a genuinely healthy immune system.
Be active and get outside
When temperatures start dropping we tend to head indoors where it is warm and cozy, but studies show that being active and getting outdoors will help ward off sickness. Researches have spent years studying why it seems that people tend to get sick more frequently during the cold weather months and one of the theories is that we spend more time indoors close to one another, thereby aiding the spread of germs. One of my favorite ways to combat this is to get outside in the fresh air. Whenever a parent calls and wants to set up a play date, I immediately recommend taking the kids on a nature walk or to a park. Moderate daily activity is proven to increase immune system function by increasing white blood cell activity and getting the kids outside allows them to run around, climb, and play in a way that they aren’t always able to do being indoors.
Avoid germ sharing
We encourage our kids to share before they are old enough to grasp the concept entirely. We praise them for sharing their favorite toy with their friend or their snack with their sister, but we should discourage them from sharing items that may aid in the spread of germs. Emphasize to your children not to share their straws, cups, and utensils with their friends. Anything that comes in contact with your child’s mouth or face should not be shared, this includes clothing such as scarves and items you wouldn’t think of like pens and pencils. If you have a child like mine with an oral fixation who always has something in his mouth, discourage the practice of sticking random toys and items in their mouth by giving them specific things to chew on. My son has some chewy silicone tubes that have been great at keeping fingers, toys, and his clothing out of his mouth.
Sneeze and cough etiquette
When I was growing up, I did not hesitate to cough and sneeze into my hands. I was not taught any other way, and it never occurred to me that I could actually be spreading just as many germs this way as if I had not bothered to cover my cough or sneeze at all. Recommendations these days are to teach your children to sneeze or cough into the crook of their elbow or into the collar of their shirt to contain the spread of germs. Unless your child can wash their hands after every a cough or sneeze, they are just moving the bacteria from their mouth or nose to a way more mobile medium.