How to boost your kids’ immune system

Here is an interesting piece from the Independent on boosting our children’s immune systems before they go back to school. It is written by Brian Higgins who is a GP at Galway Primary Care. The original article can be downloaded here

How to boost your kids’ immune system


Picture posed

Picture posed

While there will be much discussion and planning to ensure a safe return in times of Covid, there are steps we can take to keep our kids healthy as they finally re-enter the classroom.

Returning to school inevitably results in the rise of regular seasonal infections such as the common cold, gastroenteritis, hand foot and mouth disease, flu and a myriad of other common infections. While the thought of caring for a sick child is daunting, most illnesses will be mild and self-limiting, as I have come to realise that children are made of an incredible combination of magic and rubber.

There are, however, many small steps that we can take to promote a healthy immune system in our children.

“Do I need to give multivitamins?” is a question I am often asked. This is a tricky area as it is hard to separate the science from the marketing. The simple answer is, yes, give vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is very common and all children are advised to take vitamin D supplements, especially during winter months. Vitamin D primarily plays a role in bone health but it is an important element in many other body functions, including immunity. It is always worth speaking to your pharmacist or doctor about the correct dose for your child’s age.

Otherwise, a generally healthy child does not need supplemental vitamins. A balanced diet is the healthiest source of vitamins and nutrients for children and many foods such as cereals and milk are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, iron and B vitamins. If you have a concern where you feel that your child needs supplements, speak to your doctor first.

While there is some evidence for vitamin C being beneficial for helping reduce the length of viral illness, the correct dosage and route of administration remain unclear. There is no evidence that taking regular supplementation prevents illness. Making sure you child is getting sufficient vitamin C from citrus fruits, berries and peppers is sufficient.

Sleep is a critical, and often overlooked, factor in a strong immune function. School-age children are recommended to have 9-11 hours’ sleep a night and teenagers 8-10 hours. Reducing this by even one hour per night has considerable negative effects on concentration, mood and memory while also reducing immunity. Being sleep-deprived not only increases the chance of becoming unwell when exposed to a virus, it increases the length of time to recovery.

Some simple steps to improve children’s sleep quality are:

  • Keeping a consistent bed time
  • Stopping using screens an hour before bedtime
  • Avoiding sugary drinks
  • Removing toys, teddies and electrical devices from the bedroom
  • Having a calming activity before bed such as reading, jigsaws or puzzles.

Over-ingestion of sugar has some short-term effects such as hyperactivity and insomnia but also much more severe long-term effects such as tooth-decay, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

It is often hard to reduce sugar intake in children but these steps can help:

  • Only giving water and milk to children under the age of one
  • Staying hydrated and pro-actively encouraging regular water intake will reduce cravings for sugary drinks
  • Add fruit or frozen fruit in ice-trays to make water more palatable for the already sweet-toothed
  • Limit your child’s juice intake. Processed fruit drinks, even if 100pc fruit, still contain a surprising amount of fast-release sugars.

Obesity remains the greatest long-term threat to our children’s future wellbeing. Now is a good opportunity to check height, weight and readjust portion size while increasing activity levels to reorient our children towards a healthier weight. Obesity not only reduces immune function but considerably increases the risk of many illnesses, including cancer in adulthood. Encouraging exercise, reducing screen time and ensuring a balanced diet will pay huge dividends in their future health.

If your child does become unwell, is a fantastic resource for guidance. I always tell my patients to be very aware and to contact me if any of the following develop:

  • A temperature over 39.5°C
  • A temperature not dropping with antipyretics
  • A temperature lasting longer than five days
  • A child unable to keep down fluids
  • A child who is becoming lethargic
  • A parental gut feeling that something is wrong

While our children are amazing, it is hard not to worry about health. However, if you do ever get that pit-of-your-stomach sense that something is wrong, trust it.

Brian Higgins is a GP at Galway Primary Care

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