On average, elementary school children get eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu each school year, according to the CDC. For older kids, it’s about half that. Dr. Harley Rotbart, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado and author of the book “Germ Proof Your Kids,” calls schools Germ Candy Stores. But there are simple ways to keep your kids healthy this cold and flu season.
- Decrease Sugar – Cutting back on sugar can have a big impact on your child’s susceptibility to illness. Sugar weakens the immune system and feeds bacterial and viral infections. High-fructose corn syrup, prevalent in many kids’ snacks and cereals, should also be avoided – not only is it a sugar, but it also contains mercury. Evidence shows that even a moderate amount of sugar, the equivalent of 1 can of soda, can deem the immune system useless for up to 4 hours. Some good, natural sugar substitutes are honey, agave, stevia and xylitol.
- Increase Vitamin C – Vitamin C tops the list of immune boosters for many reasons. Vitamin C increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies and increases levels of interferon, the antibody that coats cell surfaces, preventing the entry of viruses. Foods that are high in vitamin C besides the obvious oranges include kale, spinach, raspberries, tomatoes, green and red sweet peppers, broccoli, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. Vitamin C also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by raising levels of HDL (good) cholesterol while lowering blood pressure and interfering with the process by which fat is converted to plaque in the arteries.
- Sufficient Sleep – Studies of adults show that sleep deprivation can make you more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, immune system weapons that attack microbes and cancer cells. Children in daycare are particularly at risk for sleep deprivation because all the activity can make it difficult for them to nap. Older children are susceptible, too, when homework and extracurricular activities infringe on sleep. How much sleep do kids need? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends newborns get up to 18 hours of sleep a day, toddlers require 12 to 13 hours, and school-age children need about 9-10 hours.
- Zinc – Zinc is great because it inhibits viral replication and can actually stop a virus in its tracks. This valuable mineral increases the production of white blood cells that fight infection and helps them fight more aggressively. For infants and children, there is some evidence that dietary zinc supplements may reduce the incidence of acute respiratory infections. Foods that are high in zinc include zinc-fortified cereals, ginger, split peas, pecans, walnuts, almonds, cinnamon, thyme and chili powder.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D is also important for a healthy immune system. Studies show that Vitamin D can reduce your child’s risk of influenza by 42 percent and reduce the risk of flu-related complications. Unfortunately just as cold and flu season arrives, the daylight hours are shorter and most of us stop getting the proper sun exposure to synthesize this valuable nutrient. Therefore increasing food consumption and supplementation of this immune-boosting nutrient is vital during the fall and winter months.
- Encourage Exercise – Research shows that obesity can depress your child’s immune system, but exercise can increase the number of white blood cells and boost their ability to fight off ailments. To get your children into a lifelong fitness habit, be a good role model. Exercise with them, rather than just sending them “out to play.” Fall is the perfect time for fun family activities like bike riding, hiking and taking a nice walk together.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – A recent study found that children taking a half-teaspoon of flax oil a day experienced fewer and less severe respiratory infections and fewer days of being absent from school. The omega 3 fatty acids in flax oil and fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) act as immune boosters by increasing the activity of phagocytes, the white blood cells that eat up bacteria. Essential fatty acids also protect the body against damage from over-reactions to infection.
- Hand Washing – One of the simplest, most effective cold and flu preventers is washing hands. Get kids started on hand washing as early as possible for a lasting healthy habit. Small children especially are very tactile learners so they come in contact with an abundance of germs and bacteria. Encourage them to sing their favorite song while they wash to ensure the proper length of hand washing.