● By Robert Frey
By Amanda Jean Elliott
There are few things tougher than sick kids. In the years before school, a child has seven to eight colds a year. Enter school age and that number drops slightly to five or six colds a year. We have some surprising tips for lowering that number and the truth about why illness arrives so swiftly after that first tardy bell each year.
Dr. Timothy Viator at Iberia Medical Center says prevention actually begins before school even starts. It’s all about prepping the immune system.
“Start getting into a school time routine a week or so before school starts — getting up early and going to bed early. If you wait until school starts, likely the kids will not get enough rest and this can stress the body and weaken the immune system,” Viator says.
Preschool children need about 10 to 13 hours of sleep. But, many people are surprised that school age children from six to 13 years of age also need nearly as much — 9 to 11 hours each night. That means if your children need to be up at 6 a.m., which is pretty common, they should be in bed at the latest by 9 p.m. or the earliest at 7 p.m.
In addition to being well rested, it’s also important for children to prepare their minds for school as well. Viator explains how it’s all connected.
“Prepare students by bringing them by the school a few days before the first day because the unknown can be anxiety producing and you’re trying to prevent as much as stress as possible,” Viator says.
Stress can weaken a child’s immune system and cause a host of physical issues that lay the foundation for sickness. Stress can disrupt their sleeping patterns, cause them to produce too much of the wrong digestive juices and lead to headaches among other things.
When kids head to school they may be facing a new variety of germs they didn’t have during the summer, which paired with close proximities and more time inside equal new illnesses.
“Students are getting exposed to new viruses and bacteria that they didn’t have when they were at home,” Viator says “Teach kids proper hand washing, especially before eating anything and avoid sharing drinks and putting hands in mouth, sucking on thumb or biting nails.”
While we know hand washing can make a huge difference — according to the CDC it can reduce the number of respiratory illnesses by 16 to 21 percent and reduce the number of people sick with diarrhea by 31 percent — doctors also say not to discount the importance of keeping hands off children’s faces as well. Teach them to pay attention to the cleanliness of their hands not just before eating, but also touching their mouth, eyes and ears, as well.
In addition to sleep and hand washing, never discount the difference healthy eating can make. That means both when kids eat, how much as well as what they eat.
“Make sure kids have breakfast in the morning. The sugar will help their brains work better and keep them focused,” Viator says.
Look for foods packed with Vitamin C from strawberries and oranges to broccoli as well as those with Vitamin D like tuna and cereals that are fortified. Give kids a probiotic that will build immune defenses from the inside out and hit the great outdoors to get that dose of much needed Vitamin D that is often lacking as the long summer days evolve into time in the classroom.
In fact, activity is another great prevention tool for immune health. According to some studies regular and moderate exercise can reduce colds and flus significantly. According to Parents Magazine, regular exercise could reduce the number of colds and flus by 25 to 50 percent.
But, the truth is that some illness simply can’t be avoided and parents should be on guard for the first symptoms to help nip sickness in the bud.
“Some things can’t be avoided or prevented - the truth is that kids in daycare and attending school are more likely to get sick than kids that stay at home or are only exposed to a small number of other kids. So, be prepared - if your kid feels bad - take their temperature, investigate symptoms (usually you have to ask if each body part hurts before you get an answer) and bring them to the doctor if their temperature is elevated or has other worrisome signs or symptoms. It may only be a virus and no antibiotics may be needed, but that is the doctor’s job to figure out,” Viator says.
Another way to prevent illness — stay up to date on vaccines. The flu technically knows no season.
“The CDC recommends we give a series of vaccines between 4 and 5 years old, between 11 and 12 and again around 16 to 17,” Viator says “And the flu shot every year.”
Each year, according to the CDC, 20,000 children under five are hospitalized because of the flu.
“Influenza is a virus that can be contracted at any time during the year. However, there are certain strains that are more prevalent during the winter (colder) months,” Viator says. “Even though we don’t get cold down south until October or November, the seasonal flu can start as early as August or September so it is recommended to get the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available, which is usually around August or September. It takes a few weeks to build your immunity so don’t wait till the flu is already spreading — also the vaccine immunity lasts at least 6 months (if not longer) so your immunity will not wear off before March if you take it early.”
But, all flu vaccines are not created equal. Viator says the CDC is making a new recommendation this year about the traditional flu shot versus the popular mist. The latter of which can be much easier to administer to children.
“This year the CDC has recommended against the use of the flu mist because it has not shown to provide good immunity the last few years. So they recommend everyone over 6 months of age get the flu vaccine and there is a high dose vaccine available to the patients over 65 to help them produce a stronger immunity response,” Viator says. “The flu vaccine is not 100 percent affective so again the best way to avoid the virus is proper hand washing and limiting exposure to others when you are sick.”
When children are sick it’s important to keep them at home, even if they don’t have the flu because a weakened immune system of any kind is more likely to contract a more serious illness.