Some of the most common questions I am asked are, "Why does my child always get sick?” "Is there something wrong with his/her immune system?", "How can I prevent illnesses in my child?"
Many concerned parents come to me with these or similar questions. The good news is that the vast majority of illnesses in children are both common and minor. They cause some temporary distress, pain, fever, and the measurable symptoms of whatever illness is affecting the child, but no long-term complications. The most common illnesses include upper respiratory infections, such as colds, flues, wheezing, ear infections and stomach viruses. Most of these illnesses occur because the child is exposed to that illness in another child or an adult. So, the best way to not get these illnesses is to not be exposed to them in the first place.
Things that increase exposure include, first and foremost, daycare attendance. If a child is in daycare, especially in the winter months, expect multiple illnesses. The average child will get eight to ten colds per year, lasting 10 - 14 days each, and clustering in the winter. This means that if a child gets two colds from March to September, and eight colds from September to March, each lasting two weeks, the child will be sick over half of the winter. Daycare has its pros and cons, but one con is that a child is placed in a room full of sick children who touch toys, cough and sneeze on one another, and pass illnesses through various means. Although most daycare centers are very diligent about keeping out children with fever or obvious symptoms, most viral illnesses are contagious before the symptoms are apparent. Other crowded places include shopping malls, grocery stores and play groups. Thus, the best way to avoid the illness is to avoid ill people.
Exposure to cigarette smoke increases the chances of getting illnesses. The toxins from cigarette smoking get into a child's respiratory tract, making it harder for the child to fight off the illness. Many smokers respond to this by saying that they don't smoke near the child. I don't think this makes much difference. In my opinion, it's a false sense of security and an excuse to continue smoking, because smoke does get into furniture, drapes, carpets, hair, clothing and breath and thus still affects the child. Now is a good time to quite smoking!
Another way to prevent illness is through good hygiene. Most illnesses are passed from touching the eyes, nose or mouth. If there is good hand washing, most of this can be prevented.
Breast-feeding, in addition, can prevent many illnesses in the younger child. Every time a person is exposed to a virus, they build an immunity to that virus. This immunity is passed through the breast milk to infants. In my practice, you can tell who is breast-fed and who is not by looking at how many sick visits a child has had. If there are hardly any or no sick visits, it is almost certain that that baby was breast-fed. If there have been multiple sick visits, it is almost assured that there was no breast-feeding.
Although many people think cold weather causes colds, it doesn't. However, when there is cold weather, people tend to stay indoor more, allowing viruses to be more easily transmitted from person to person.
Vaccines prevent many of the most serious illnesses. In the history of medicine, the things that have been the most important to the improvement of people's health include:
- good hygiene
- good nutrition
Without vaccinations, many millions of children would have contracted some very serious illnesses. I understand that some people are against vaccinations for various reasons, but every reason against recommended vaccines has been proven to be nothing compared to the benefits of vaccination. People who refuse to vaccinate their children are putting their children at risk. Luckily for them, everyone else is vaccinating their children so these serious illnesses are no longer so prevalent. But as more and more people do not have their children vaccinated, the more these illnesses will return, and the more exposure children will have to them. If they are not vaccinated, they will contract some of these illnesses.
As far as children having an immune deficiency or serious illness causing them to be sick all the time, this does happen, but it is much more rare. Things that would make you think about an immune deficiency or more serious illness include multiple hospitalizations, non-response to standard medical treatment, and more unusual organisms causing the infection.