The family that lives together sickens together children are always bringing home coughs and colds, but there are ways of limiting the contagion.
Boundaries for bugs: how to contain infections in the family
Children may bring giggles and cuddles into your home, but those are not their only contributions to the household: while they smile at you sweetly and plant sloppy kisses on your cheeks, they may be passing on an array of colds, coughs and tummy bugs.
"Once you have children you are opening your home to a whole host of infections which you probably wouldn't have encountered otherwise," says Dr Philippa Vincent, a general practitioner in London. "I'm surprised when parents complain that their small children are ill all the time. The fact is, children fall ill more frequently than adults because they are regularly exposed to viruses and infections that they have never come across before. Adults have built up an immunity to many infections, but children are just going through that process."
Unfortunately, the regular stamping grounds for children - toddler groups, nurseries and schools - are all hotbeds for germs. "I warn parents that their child will fall ill again and again when they first start nursery, and then every time they change nursery or school the process will repeat itself," explains Vincent.
It's not nice to watch your child suffer, but it's even more unpleasant to watch that bug work its way around the whole family.
"We often see families where one child is sick one week, and another child is sick the next, as family members pass their illnesses back and forth to each other," says Tere Jones, an American paediatric nurse and blogger. "It makes you realise the importance of keeping an entire family healthy."
So, what can be done? Jones recommends an old classic, vitamin C, to help fight illness; taken daily, it can shorten the duration of a cold or flu. Vitamin C can be found in oranges, tomatoes, celery and pineapples, among other foods. "If you keep your children healthy they are less likely to fall ill," confirms Dr Patricia Macnair, an author and health correspondent for the BBC. "A good, balanced diet, with fresh fruit and vegetables is essential."
Sleep is equally important when it comes to maintaining a strong immune system. "I don't think parents are making their kids go to bed early enough these days. Studies show that you only need one or two days of poor sleep for it to affect your immune system, which is why it's important to have bedtimes and to be strict about them."
Dr Jo Jones, a consultant paediatrician, agrees wholeheartedly: "My children fall ill far less frequently than their friends and I believe it's because they have a good diet and lots of sleep."
Stress can also suppress the immune system, so you should make sure your children have plenty of opportunities to talk to you about anything that's worrying them. "Parents are always racing around taking their kids to different clubs, but I think children need lots of downtime and it's good for them to get bored, to a degree," says Macnair. Some people would argue that children are better off having that free time in a dirty house because it results in a stronger immune system, but is this a good reason to be lax about the vacuuming? "You need reasonable standards of cleanliness at home," agrees Macnair. "A bit of dust is OK but you should keep your toilet and bathroom very clean. I'm often shocked by the grubby hand towels I see in friends' houses: there's not much point washing your hands if you're going to dry them on a dirty towel."
Jones agrees that hygiene is important but believes that fastidiously disinfecting the whole house is counterproductive. "By over-cleaning we are unwittingly preventing our children's highly honed immune systems from coping normally with the very germs that we try to banish. Exiling disinfectant sprays to the loo is a far better thing for our children's well-being."
However many oranges, apples and sparkling hand towels you fill your house with, your children will inevitably fall ill at some point. What then? "If your child gets sick there is a high chance you will all fall ill," says Macnair. "Tummy bugs, coughs, colds and sneezes are all contagious."
The best way to prevent bugs becoming part of the family is to be hot on hygiene. If there's a tummy bug then the sufferer must wash his or her hands regularly. Research supports this. A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 2.42 days of school per year were missed by children who used proper hand hygiene, compared with 3.02 days by children who did not. Of course, this might not be a great way to sell handwashing to your children.
Anyone who has a cold should use paper handkerchiefs and dispose of them immediately to contain the infection. It's also worth giving the sick individual a personal hand towel.
"If a child is really ill, they're better off resting in their own room, rather than lying on the sofa in the lounge," advises Macnair. "They will be able to relax properly in their own bedroom and won't put everyone else's health at risk." And if you think a trip to your GP is necessary, see if you can find a friend to look after your other children rather than expose them to the germs in the waiting room.
Once at the doctor's, you might want to think carefully about the medication you're offered.
"If children are put on antibiotics at the first sign of infection they're not allowing their body's natural responses to work," says Vincent. "My children are seven and six and have only been on antibiotics a couple of times, once for a urine infection and once for impetigo. Neither child has had antibiotics for tonsillitis or ear infections because I think it's better for their immune systems to fight them off and I think that's why my children are rarely ill."
Children tend to bounce back from bugs faster than grown-ups and there's no worse combination than sick parents and healthy, lively children. It might not be in our DNA to ask for help, but there are times when you'd be crazy not to. "When we were struck down with a sick bug we called in all our favours," says Alex Bradley, a mother of two. "Our neighbour brought round our shopping, my in-laws dropped off medication, the childminder had Lucy for extra days, and my friends from antenatal class took turns having Ellie over for tea." By setting up a support network in this way, you not only provide for your own family, you will be ensuring that your friends know they can turn to you for help when they need it, too.
If you're a parent of small children and feel like you have a second job as a nurse, there is good news on the horizon. "The more infections your child is exposed to, the better their immune system will be in the long-term," says Vincent. So try to see each bug and cold as one more to tick off the list.
If you have preschoolers you may have noticed that you're working your way through all the different types of tummy bugs, while school-aged children are amassing a defence system against sore throats and colds. By the time they hit eight years old, Macnair says, you will be through the worst. The countdown is on.
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