How to Stay Healthy When Your Child is Sick
When your kids are sick, they need your complete attention and tender loving care, yet nothing spreads faster than the contagious virus or illness that has followed them home from school, day care, or the playground.
Many parents find they are susceptible to the same common childhood maladies their kids have, like colds, strep throat, gastrointestinal viruses, and the seasonal flu. I know – I’ve been there more times than I care to count!
Don’t become vulnerable to the one thing worse than taking care of sick kids – taking care of sick kids while you’re sick, too!
So what steps can you take to avoid catching bugs from your little ones?
Luckily, I have several friends who are nurses (and great sources of practical info). After interviewing them, and following up with my own research, here are my top tips on how to protect yourself and the rest of the family when you have a little ‘sickling’ in the house:
Get the Flu Shot
While it’s true that the flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective, recent studies show that getting one can slash a person’s risk of contracting the potentially debilitating illness by about 50 to 60 percent. Plus, if you do catch this year’s flu, having had a flu shot can make your symptoms milder.
“Getting the flu shot is the same kind of sensible precaution as buckling your seat belt. If you got the flu shot but you end up catching the flu, it could be less severe and less likely to land you in the hospital.”
No Nasal Spray
Just a quick warning for parents of needle-phobes: The nasal spray—once a welcome alternative for children ages 2 and older—is no longer a viable option. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that it was only 3 percent effective against the most common viruses that circulated last season; as a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics says it should not be used.
Wash Your Hands
This may seem like a no-brainer, but when you have a sniffling baby in your arms or a first-grader throwing up nonstop, you may need a reminder.
The best way for parents to keep from getting sick when their kids are sick is diligent hand washing immediately after wiping noses, changing diapers, feeding, or any tending to sick kids. Have your kids wash their hands a lot, too.
A study conducted on schoolkids in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, found that scheduling at least four hand-washing breaks a day reduced the average student’s number of sick days. It worked especially well for stomach bugs, cutting the risk of absences due to illnesses like diarrhea by more than half.
Lathering up with soap and water (any temperature is fine—research suggests warm doesn’t work any better than cold), and then scrubbing for at least 20 seconds, is the best way to get rid of germs, according to the CDC.
According to the CDC, handwashing is like a “do-it-yourself” vaccine.
Second-best: applying a hand sanitizer that contains alcohol.
Go to Bed on Time
Sleep is a cornerstone of a healthy immune system. And the best way for you and your kids to get the sleep you need is to set a bedtime and stick to it consistently, says Judith Owens, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital. “There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the key is not just getting the right amount of sleep but also keeping your schedule consistent,” she says.
It’s fine to stay up and sleep in by a half hour on the weekends, but if bedtime or wake time shift more than about an hour, that can interfere with circadian rhythms, says Dr. Owens.
Just how important is sleep?
In one seminal study published in 2009, researchers administered nasal drops that contained a cold virus to more than 150 adults. Those who had averaged less than seven hours of sleep nightly for the prior two weeks were almost three times more likely to get sick as those who had slept eight hours or more.
- Read The Complete Guide to Better Sleep With Melatonin
- Time For a New Bed Pillow? Here’s Everything You Need to Know
Shower and Wash Your Hair
If you’ve been taking care of a sick child, you’ll be potentially carrying around the offending germs or virus, especially if your kids love to snuggle up with you. Even if the exposure doesn’t make you sick, you might still pass the offending illness on to others in your family through physical contact.
Disposable items like paper towels, plates, cups, and cutlery can be a parent’s best friend. Stock up on the disposables in advance to avoid over-paying and stressing out later. And start using the disposable items at the first sign of a family member’s illness.
Also, don’t leave used tissues lying around; toss them out immediately (they are germ bombs!). Throw them right into the garbage, then wash your hands, and ask the kids to do the same.
Take Immune-Boosting Supplements
Evidence is growing for the importance of vitamin D in fighting colds and flu; since it’s difficult to get enough from food and sunlight can cause skin cancer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all kids take at least 400 IU of vitamin D a day, beginning in infancy.
The Mayo Clinic‘s recommended dose for adults is 600 to 800 IU per day, but many experts recommend taking even more.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient (it can’t be produced by the body), and has long been touted as a cold-and-flu fighter. It is especially helpful if you are deficient in it; and surprisingly, many kids and adults are! (R)
The Cleveland Clinic says vitamin C “is one of the biggest immune system boosters of all. In fact, a lack of vitamin C can even make you more prone to getting sick”.
There is now copious evidence that vitamin C benefits people with impaired immune function, whether that impairment is the result of disease or simply of aging.
In patients with frequent skin infections, for example, who had known impairment in neutrophil tracking and killing of microorganisms, vitamin C was as effective as a powerful immune-regulating drug, levamisole, at improving neutrophil function and producing long-lasting remission.
This same dose of vitamin C was found to boost immune cell functions in women who were an average of 72 years old. In this study, lymphocyte and neutrophil function improved in all members of this group, including those who were healthy, those with major depression, and those with coronary heart disease. This study demonstrated the far-reaching effects of vitamin C in the aging body!
But in my excitement over vitamin C, I’m really veering off topic! Sorry!
There is also no shortage of research demonstrating that vitamin C can reduce symptoms and shorten duration of the common cold, if you do happen to catch one, studies show that vitamin C supplementation can reduce the duration of colds by anywhere from 5 to 21%.
Vitamin C supplementation has also been shown to significantly reduce the severity of cold symptoms. And in older people who require hospitalization for pneumonia and chronic bronchitis, even a dose of just 200 mg per day was shown to reduce the clinical severity of the illness.
Vitamin C References:
Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. Immune-enhancing role of vitamin C and zinc and effect on clinical conditions. Ann Nutr Metab. 2006;50(2):85-94.
Hemila H, Douglas RM. Vitamin C and acute respiratory infections. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis. 1999 Sep;3(9):756-61.
De la Fuente M, Ferrandez MD, Burgos MS, Soler A, Prieto A, Miquel J. Immune function in aged women is improved by ingestion of vitamins C and E. Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 1998 Apr;76(4):373-80.
Rebora A, Dallegri F, Patrone F. Neutrophil dysfunction and repeated infections: influence of levamisole and ascorbic acid. Br J Dermatol. 1980 Jan;102(1):49-56.
Garlic in food is fantastic, but in the interest of not overdoing the flavor, I’m a big proponent of garlic supplements as an immune booster, and science bears this out.
In fact, WebMD calls garlic “an immunity superstar”!
Allicin and other sulphur-containing compounds in garlic have been shown to boost white blood cells’ ability to fight diseases and viruses (including the common cold and flu).
These compounds have been shown to boost the disease-fighting response of some types of white blood cells in the body when they encounter viruses, such as the viruses that cause the common cold or flu.
One study gave 146 healthy volunteers either garlic supplements or a placebo for three months. The garlic group had a 63% lower risk of getting a cold, and their colds were also 70% shorter.
Another study found that colds were on average 61% shorter for subjects who ate 2.56 grams of aged garlic extract per day, compared to a placebo group. Their colds were also less severe.
Probiotics also show a lot of promise. The beneficial bacteria keep the peace throughout the gastrointestinal tract, decreasing inflammation and, in turn, helping your immune system respond properly to viruses like the common cold.
“I highly recommend probiotics to favorably balance the intestinal microflora. After all, more of the immune system is located in your gut than anywhere else in your body,” says Donald B. Levy, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston.
A 2016 review published in the journal Medicine (Baltimore) found that adults and children who consumed probiotics experienced about 47 percent fewer acute upper respiratory tract infections than those who took placebos. I’ll take those odds.
In fact, the review concluded that:
“Based on the available data and taking into account the safety profile of RCTs [randomized control trials], probiotic consumption appears to be a feasible way to decrease the incidence of RTIs [respiratory tract infections] in children”.
So, I advise picking up some probiotic supplements for the cold and flu season!
Clean the Family Bathroom
I know … it’s the last thing you want to do when you’re already caring for a sick child, but bathroom hygiene is especially important to prevent spreading illness. Wipe down all the the surfaces where germs can live, especially high traffic areas like the bathroom.
And if you can, use your own separate bathroom, away from the sick kids.
Wipe Down the Counters
In addition to the bathroom, make sure you also keep the kitchen and other areas clean too. Use paper towels and a disinfectant cleaner, or disposable disinfecting wipes.
This is one of those times you don’t want kids sharing their things. Be mindful not to eat off your kids’ plates or let the kids share food, utensils, or cups.
Also, try not to let them share toys, electronic devices, or even the TV remote. If they need to share these items, don’t forget to use your disinfecting wipes to quickly clean the shared phones, tablets, computer keyboards, and other areas where germs can congregate, and have the kids wash their hands (again!).
Elbows and Tissues
One way to prevent the spread of airborne illnesses is to make sure the kids cough and sneeze into their elbows and to use tissues (and not their hands).
Pay Attention to Your Diet
Obesity goes hand in hand with chronic inflammation, in which certain immune chemicals are constantly increased in the body instead of only when needed to fight off infection.
This state of constant low-grade alert can make the immune system less effective overall, says Melina Jampolis, M.D., a physician nutrition specialist and author of The Doctor on Demand Diet.
But eating more fiber—found in fresh fruit, veggies, and grains— can help reduce inflammation in the body, and that in turn allows your immune system to function better, she says.
Cutting back on sugar may help too: “Sugar causes insulin levels to spike, and high insulin increases inflammation,” says John Stracks, M.D., assistant clinical professor of family and community medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
Sticking to a healthy diet might even make your flu shot work better: Research in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that obese people have a decreased immune response to the flu vaccine compared with those who aren’t obese.
In fact, the study concluded that:
“… influenza vaccine antibody levels decline significantly [immune] responses are defective in obese compared with healthy weight individuals”.
Bottom line – eat plenty of fiber and cut down on sugar. And this probably isn’t the best time for a binge on pizza and ice cream.
Check Your Air Filter
Hospital-grade HEPA certified air filters can help reduce the spread of airborne germs. It’s good to have one handy for when the need arises.
Unfortunately, we can’t seal our kids in bubble wrap to keep them from getting sick, but we can teach them good health sense and good hygiene. Teach your kids to recognize and politely avoid kids at school who are obviously sick with runny noses, coughing, and hoarse voices.
Other than that, there’s not too much you can do to avoid a common contagion making an unwelcome appearance in your home.
Do your best to take care of yourself while caring for your child, and remember: “this too, shall pass.”
Wishing you and your family good health!
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