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This time of year, when winter weather still lingers and spring hasn’t quite come around, I start to hear a version of the same question from many parents:
“My child seems to be getting sick so often; is there something wrong with him?”
Teachers with classrooms of coughing kids must also wonder the same thing about their students. At times, I’ve wondered the same about my own kids!
The answer, in most cases, is the same re-assuring one: No, nothing is wrong with them.
It’s normal for young kids to catch a cold bug or a virus 8 to 12 times per year. That is a lot! There are hundreds of different cold viruses. Since kids’ immune systems have not encountered these viruses before, they are more susceptible to getting each new virus they are exposed to. One cold starts to get a bit better just as another one comes on its heels. With that kind of cycle, it can feel like kids are always sick.
You may worry that your child has a weak immune system. Parents should talk with their childrens’ doctor about this when children show these patterns:
- They seem to catch a cold or virus infection more often than 8 to 12 times per year.
- Their infections do not go away or are especially severe.
- Their bodies are not physically growing at a normal rate.
- You have a family history of immune disorders.
Kids with truly weak immune systems include:
- Those born with abnormalities of the immune system.
- Those infected with HIV.
- Those living without a spleen.
- Those who have cancer.
- Those who have had organ transplants.
While most kids have a healthy immune system and are getting the expected rate of infections each year, it is natural that parents want to know what they can do to keep their children as healthy as possible.
Here are some ideas that work to keep parents healthy, too:
Many illnesses are spread through germs shared by touch. When one child wipes his runny nose and then touches a doorknob, pencil, or toy he leaves a trail of germs that can be picked up by the next child coming along. The importance of frequent and thorough handwashing cannot be emphasized enough. As the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention explains on its website: “Handwashing is like a ‘do-it-yourself’ vaccine.”
I protect my children every year against influenza by giving them the flu shot and I recommend you do the same for your family. This vaccination and other recommended childhood vaccines prevent many serious life-threatening illnesses. But don’t be surprised if your child still gets colds and stomach viruses as flu shots don’t protect against every sickness and it takes about two weeks for the flu shot to work.
Cover coughs and sneezes
Teach kids to cough and sneeze “like Dracula” does: into their elbow every time.
Nutrition and supplements
While scientists are looking closely at whether taking probiotics, vitamins C and D, zinc, garlic, and ginseng will help your child get sick less often, there is not yet enough clear evidence for me to be able to guide you toward any of these. What is clear is that a diverse and healthy diet will provide many of the ingredients being studied. Feed your children fruits, veggies, yogurt (containing active cultures), and fortified dairy products and they are likely to get these substances naturally. To read more about the work being done in this area start with this article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Another common sense approach to keeping your kids healthy is to ensure they get enough sleep. The positive benefits when kids get the recommended amount of sleep are numerous and research is being done to prove and explain the benefit to the immune system.
We know that less active kids get sick more often. When kids increase their activity level they are less likely to get respiratory infections. So keep your kids moving.
And while we are on this subject, exercising in the cold weather does not give you a cold. Quite the opposite! People tend to get more colds in the winter months because they spend more time indoors in close contact with each other and all those germs on doorknobs.
Kids whose parents smoke get sick more often than those whose parents don’t smoke. Talk with your doctor for help quitting.
If you are a pet owner, don’t worry about your pet’s germs; research is showing us that kids raised with dogs and cats tend to get sick less often than those raised without pets.
It is hard to spend so much time caring for and worrying about sick kids. As spring rolls around, you can expect that the April showers and May flowers will also bring healthier kids to your homes and classrooms.