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With the cold weather setting in, many parents are dealing with sick kids. You might have noticed that your children fall sick far more frequently than you do over the wintertime. But the good news is that this is perfectly normal and even healthy!
The immune system is complex, and there are differences between your immunity and your child’s. That’s why it’s important to know what is realistic when it comes to your kids and how their immune system works.
Watch the video below or keep reading to learn more about why children are more prone to illness and how to deal with constantly sick kids.
Understanding the young immune system
Immunity is one of the most complex and sophisticated systems of the human body. Unlike other body systems, there is no one place that the immune system lives. It is made up of various organs, cells and chemicals that fight pathogens, or disease-causing germs. This prevents damage to our cells and allows us to survive and thrive.
There are two main branches of the immune system: innate immunity and adaptive immunity.
The innate immune system is a basic and general form of immunity. It is one of the first lines of defence against any germs or injuries. The cells of this immune branch attack anything that is unfamiliar in the body. Our kids rely mostly on this form of immunity when young, because the other branch is still immature.
Much of this immunity is inherited, so we pass it on to our babies. However, it does strengthen as children age.
The adaptive immune system is also known as acquired immunity. The cells of this branch are the second responders. They take a little longer to kick in, but their effects are more specific to the invading germ.
This immune branch develops as we are exposed to pathogens. Babies are born with very little adaptive immunity, and it takes years for it to strengthen.
The main reason that children fall sick all the time is because this immunity is still growing. But the good news is that this allows them to develop a strong adaptive immunity.
So even if you feel frustrated when dealing with constantly sick kids, it’s reassuring to know that it is normal and even healthy. As long as your kids bounce back quickly from illness, they are on track for building a robust immune system.
What this looks like in action
Confused about how the different systems work together? Here’s an example.
Your child is exposed to a pathogen through a friend at school or kinder. Let’s say that this virus makes contact with the skin on their hand.
The first layer of immune defence is the natural barriers of the body. These include the skin and the mucus membranes in areas such as the respiratory tract and gut. Because of these barriers, many germs never make it into the body.
Once this virus does make it into the body, the first response comes from the innate immune system. White blood cells such as neutrophils and natural killer cells circulate through the bloodstream. Their job is to look for any invading germs or foreign objects.
When these cells find the virus, they will try to control it by eating the virus. But because viruses and other germs multiply quickly, the innate response may not be enough to prevent infection.
This is where adaptive immunity comes in. Immune cells such as T-cells and B-cells come along and produce antibodies to fight that specific germ. These antibodies will remember the pathogen and how to fight it. So the next time that the virus makes it into the body, the immune system knows exactly what to do to defeat it.
Once adaptive immunity is built up, the immune system can fight off germs without reaching the stage of causing symptoms. Ever wondered how you have three kids coughing and sneezing on you, but you don’t fall sick? It’s probably because the germ did get into your body, but your adaptive immunity knew that germ already and got rid of it before infection set in.
The role of inflammation
Another part of the immune system is inflammation. It’s important to know that short-term inflammation is a normal and natural part of defending against infection.
Inflammation is how our immune cells communicate with each other. It helps to coordinate the response of the immune system. But the downside of this is that it’s also why we feel unwell when we catch a bug. Symptoms such as fever, aches and pain, fatigue and feeling miserable are caused by the inflammation, not the germs.
Parents often reach for the Panadol or Nurofen to ease the symptoms of their sick kids. But this can suppress the inflammatory response and slow the communication of the immune system.
There is a time and place for using medicine for infections. We also know that inflammation can go too far with some infections such as coronavirus, leading to a cytokine storm. But if your child is alert and responsive, they are unlikely to need medication. We don’t need to reach for something whenever they feel sniffly or under the weather.
Factors that affect immunity
Despite what some doctors claim, vaccines aren’t the only way to support immune development. There are factors that can support and optimise immune function in our kids. Some of these factors include:
- Breastmilk – contain many factors that help develop the immune system, including antibodies, prebiotics, probiotics and white blood cells. Breastfed babies are at a lower risk of infections.
- Vaginal birth – babies born vaginally are exposed to mum’s bacteria, which stimulates the immune response
- Immune system nutrients – many nutrients are able to support the production and function of immune cells. Zinc and vitamin C are two examples.
- A healthy gut – gut health has a significant influence on the immune system. By supporting a healthy gut, you support immune development
If you weren’t able to breastfeed or had a C-section birth, you don’t need to feel guilty. You just want to make sure you take steps to support their immune development.
There are also factors that can have a negative impact on immunity. They are able to disable immune cells, or suppress their function and activity. Some of these factors include:
- The modern diet that is high in sugar and processed foods and low in nutrients and fibre
- Poor sleep
- High stress levels
- Environmental toxins
- Hygiene and sanitation leading to insufficient exposure to microbes
- Poor gut health
By minimising these factors wherever possible, we can reduce their impact on immunity.
How to spot if your child has a healthy immune system
Unlike adults, a child falling sick frequently doesn’t mean they have a poor immune system. It’s common for kids to catch multiple bugs the first year of kinder or childcare!
The true deciding factor is how quickly your child bounces back from illness. A healthy child will recover quickly – they won’t have the same runny nose all winter or cough for months after catching a cold.
How quickly they respond can vary depending on the infection. It may take a week or so to get over the flu, but only a day or two to beat the common cold. But if symptoms linger for weeks or even months after falling ill, you may need to look at supporting their immune system.
Learning to look at your sick kids in a different light
As parents, we want to look at kids falling sick differently. It can be frustrating when your child falls ill and you have to take a day off. Many parents will want to reach for medications to ease their symptoms and get them back to school or kinder quickly.
But a day or two of rest and sleep is often all that your child needs! For most illnesses, this is enough for their immune system to kick in and build some adaptive immunity to that germ.
It is perfectly normal for our kids to:
- Fall sick quickly and fairly frequently
- Feel tired and grumpy when sick
- Lose their appetite while their body focuses on fighting off the germs
- Bounce back quickly from illness
Most kids don’t need antibiotics to help them get over infections. They help in the short-term, but they also do the immune system’s job for them. This means it doesn’t get the chance to develop properly.
There are also other side effects of antibiotics and other medications that have a negative impact on the immune system long-term.
Instead of going for the quick fix, we want to embrace the process of kids building up a healthy immune response.
Keep your kids healthy this winter!
Get your Free copy of our Foods To Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet here.