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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017 12:02 am

Keeping bugs at bay

Battling germs this cold season

The duration of hand washing matters most. And supervision helps.


Yes, cold season is upon us. But fear not. While you may want to keep your child in a bubble to avoid germs altogether, it wouldn’t do much for anyone’s sanity. There are plenty of more effective measures you can take instead to strengthen your child’s immune system and keep bugs at bay.

Colds are caused when viruses find their way into nasal passages and cause infection. Once inside, the virus causes inflammation in the mucous membranes, which produce secretions. It spreads when tiny air droplets escape from a sick person’s nose or mouth and land on you. Or when you touch surfaces that have been contaminated with said droplets and then touch your orifices. Preschool and elementary school-aged children get about six to 10 colds a year. The viruses are most contagious in the first two to three days, when the child is feeling her worst, and much less so after the first week, though the child may still show symptoms. This is because the virus has disappeared but the irritation it caused still persists.

Arguably the most vital step you can take in the fight against germs is to help your child get plenty of rest. (Easier said than done, right?) Children need good quality sleep; anywhere from 10 to 14 hours depending on their age. To encourage this, keep their bedrooms dark and free of electronic screens, which interfere with melatonin production. Ensure that children have plenty of unstructured downtime for creative play. Packing activities in their every spare moment will lead to stress, a known immunity-zapper. Help older children handle their responsibilities and activities and build in time for relaxation at the end of the day.

Second, actually let your child play outside. Regular exercise can reduce the occurrence of colds and flu by 25-50 percent, according to Hopkinsmedicine.net. It helps keep energy up and stress levels down. And physical exertion boosts the circulation of infection-fighting cells.

Bundling kids up to run around outdoors, even for as little as 20-30 minutes a day, helps them get the recommended amount of vitamin D. It also involves way fewer germy surfaces than your friendly neighborhood indoor play space – and will help them sleep better.

A nutritious diet, low in sugar and processed foods, will also support a young immune system. Sugar upsets the balance of good and bad bacteria, thus lowering immunity. Probiotics containing lactobacillus and bifidobacteria have been suggested as helpful in increasing the good bacteria in your child’s gut, as a significant portion of the immune system is based in the gut. Certain cells which live in the gut lining spend the entirety of their lives excreting mass quantities of antibodies, which help fight infection. Probiotics can be added in with supplements or yogurt – but check to make sure it’s low in sugar; most varieties marketed to children are decidedly not.

Fresh fruits and vegetables containing phytonutrients will also help build immunity. Phytonutrients help protect plants from germs, fungi and bugs and will help protect humans too. They are easy to identify because they’re the fruits and vegetables with the most vibrant colors – blueberries, tomatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes. Buy organic and local when you can, as pesticides are not great for little bodies or the planet, and the time a food spends in transit from farm to plate can lessen the nutritional bang for your buck. Of course, organic can be expensive, so if your budget is tight, prioritize organic dairy and meat and the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” (strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, grapes, cherries, celery, spinach, kale, collard greens, tomatoes and peppers). If possible, choosing to breastfeed your baby is a big step toward giving her a strong immune system. Breastfeeding has been shown to protect against respiratory tract infections for years beyond infancy.

Finally, teach children how germs spread and encourage them to keep their hands clean. Hands should be washed often, with soap and water. The type of soap and temperature of water matters less than the duration of washing and friction used. Teach children to wash their hands long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, or at least 20 seconds. They should pay attention to the backs of hands and in between fingers, in addition to palms. Keep children’s fingernails cut short – germs like to hide out underneath them. When a sink is not available, use an unscented hand sanitizer with alcohol.

Teach children to cover their nose with a tissue when they sneeze or, second best, the inside of their elbow (“Dracula style”). Train them to avoid touching their faces, as yucky germs can get in through the eyes, nose and mouth. Because young children are kinetic learners – they learn by going through the motions – plan on washing hands along with them and supervising the process. This sends a stronger message than simple verbal reminders. Set a good example by regularly washing your own hands and make sure your partner joins the routine too. Parental hand washing is especially important following going to the bathroom, cleaning up a mess, helping a child with the potty or a diaper, wiping a sick child’s nose and before eating and preparing food. Though much of these seem obvious, when we’re in a rush, they can fall by the wayside. Clean high-traffic germ “hotspots” often – places like countertops, doorknobs and phones.

A word of caution, though about antibacterial soaps and wipes. The American Medical Association discourages consumer use of these wipes because they are associated with the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Soaps containing Triclosan in particular should be avoided – it does not increase germ-fighting effectiveness and it seems to interfere with hormones, with potential side effects like infertility, early-onset puberty, obesity and cancer. The Food and Drug Administration advises that using products with Triclosan is not worth the risk.

Contact Ann Farrar at afarrar@illinoistimes.com.


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