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5 ways to help strengthen kids' immune system this cold & flu season

Plus how to protect your own health when your child is sick.

By Justine LoMonaco, sponsored by

It’s almost hard to believe there was a time when the average parent could hear the word “virus” without experiencing major stress. But as we continue to ride the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (and its subsequent variant viruses)—and find ourselves fast approaching another cold and flu season—it’s natural to be feeling anxious about keeping our families healthy. “Inevitably, kids are going to get sick. We can’t avoid everything,” says Jasmin Makar, MD, of Stanford Children’s Health, San Francisco location. “And especially in this cohort of kids we’ve got right now who didn’t get exposure to anything for a good year, now they’re going back to daycare or going to preschool or going to school, and because they haven’t seen these things before, they’re bound to come down with a lot of these routine viruses that all children tend to get.” In fact, Makar says most parents can expect children in daycare or in-person school to come down with an average of 6-10 upper respiratory infections a year—it’s actually perfectly normal.
Child with a flu

If you’re still feeling nervous, the good news is that there are simple things you can do (or keep doing!) that can help keep your child’s immune system in the best shape to tackle those inevitable viruses that crop up in childhood.

Start with quality nutrition and sleep

“Obviously nutrition plays a huge part in immunity,” Makar says. “There’s no magic to it—it’s really just eating a wide variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains and minimizing the amounts of processed foods.” Makar recommends whole foods over vitamin supplements because the nutrients are better absorbed through food, but parents can also talk to their pediatrician about filling a deficiency if needed. Finally, Makar also recommends breastfeeding very young children if possible as a first step to passing along antibodies and starting babies with a strong immune system.

Additionally, parents should do what they can to establish a sleep routine that provides children with not only enough sleep, but also enough quality sleep. This can be done by limiting screen exposure in the hour before bedtime and providing children with a dark, cool sleep environment. Snoring and frequent waking in the night can also be indicative of a sleep quality issue, so parents should address that with their pediatrician if necessary.

Prioritize vaccinations and preventative measures

While routine childhood vaccinations continue to be a crucial step in protecting children from preventable illnesses, Makar also strongly recommends parents prioritize flu shots. “This is the beginning of our flu season, and I always recommend to my patients to get the flu shot before Halloween so they’re covered,” she says. “And for kids over 12 right now, and hopefully soon for kids over five, getting their COVID vaccine. That’s a huge, huge bonus and a huge way to protect a very vulnerable population.”

Even if your child is still too young to be vaccinated, there are a variety of safety protocols families can follow to reduce the spread of viral infections. “Masking decreases the rate of transmission of COVID and a lot of other respiratory viruses, so masking is a great safety measure,” Makar says. “Social distancing helps, too, along with frequent handwashing, and then remembering not to touch your nose, your mouth. That’s hard for kids, especially toddlers and preschoolers because the way they explore the world is by putting everything in their mouths, so then it’s going to be more important that the surfaces that they’re touching and the toys are getting regularly cleaned.”

Take immediate action if your child does come down with a virus

For many families, the most notable thing about the last year has been a lack of viruses due to social distancing, which can make it even harder to know the difference between a standard virus and COVID-19. “There’s a lot of overlap between them,” Makar says. “And in kids especially, the symptoms of COVID can be very minimal—minimal runny nose and low-grade fever, that’s sometimes all it is with kids. So it is important not to overlook even those minimal symptoms and to take those seriously.” That means isolating at the first sign of illness. Next, Makar recommends treating their symptoms to help them feel more comfortable, including taking a fever reducer and encouraging fluids as dehydration can make them feel worse..Next, get a COVID test as quickly as you can. “You want to rule that out pretty quickly, and then you can go from there,” Makar says. “Most of your standard childhood viruses last 4-7 days.”

Once you’ve isolated and ruled out COVID, parents’ next concern is often keeping themselves from catching their child’s illness. “[Many of the things children come down with] we’re immune to as adults because we got a lot of them when we were kids, but there are some things that are quite contagious,” Makar says. Fortunately, there’s nothing complicated about protecting your own health—Makar recommends frequent handwashing and sanitizing regularly touched surfaces, maintaining a healthy diet and sleep schedule, and even masking at home to prevent transmission of many viruses.

While extra anxiety over your family’s health is normal right now, there’s reason to stay optimistic, too: “There’s no magic to this. It’s all the basics that are really helpful to boost immunity and just general health,” Makar says. “It can be scary and anxiety provoking, but the kids weather these standard childhood viruses very well. Kids are very resilient.”