Infections in Children

A child typically gets 6 to 12 colds or flu per year, resulting in common symptoms such as runny nose, fever, and coughing.

Day care centers, schools, and other activities provide children with crucial stimulation, education, and social opportunities. However, participating in group activities is particularly challenging for young children due to their greater susceptibility to infections caused by an immature immune system. 

Over the course of a typical year, a child may experience 6 to 12 colds or cases of flu, which are characterized by common symptoms such as runny nose, fever, and coughing. While these infections typically resolve within 7 to 10 days, they can result in missed days of day care for the child and work for their parents.

What is the immune system?

The immune system is a network of tissues and cells that work together to defend the body from harmful pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. It ensures the body’s health by effectively responding to infections.

How does the immune system function? 

The immune system operates through two key components that work together: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.

The role of the innate immune system 

The innate immune system acts as the initial defense mechanism of the body. It is present from birth and consists of physical barriers such as the skin and mucous membranes, as well as gut bacteria. It detects pathogens, summons other immune cells for attack, and initiates inflammation and fever.

The function of the adaptive immune system 

The adaptive immune system provides a more specific defense against particular infections. It generates antibodies that identify and neutralize individual pathogens or mark them for elimination. It also includes memory cells that remain in the body for a period of time after an infection has resolved, enabling a rapid response if the pathogen reappears.

Immune system in children 

A child’s adaptive immune system evolves with age and through exposure to various illnesses. The gut, which is frequently exposed to new and potentially harmful microorganisms and viruses, plays a critical role in a child’s immune health. A large number of the body’s immune cells are located in the gut, and cells that line the small intestine produce significant amounts of antibodies. Furthermore, gut microbiota help educate the adaptive immune system to differentiate between pathogens, helpful microbes, and the body’s own cells.

The body can also receive temporary passive immunity by obtaining antibodies from an external source. For example, antitoxin treatments contain antibodies that grant passive immunity.

Development of the immune system 

A baby’s immune system doesn’t fully mature until 2 to 3 months old, making them particularly vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. Fortunately, the fetus receives antibodies from the mother via the placenta, which provides protection against infections during the early weeks of life. Additionally, breast milk contains protective antibodies and can reduce the risk of allergies.

Parents can assist in protecting their baby during the early stages by asking visitors to wash their hands before handling the baby and limiting contact with people outside the family for the first six months.

After this time, however, a baby should be exposed to harmless bacteria in the first three years of life to establish a healthy and diverse gut microbiota. These bacteria aid the immune system in identifying pathogens and serve as a barrier against infections.

Boosting a child’s immune system 

Although it is normal for children to catch colds and flu occasionally, there are ways to enhance their immune system.

A balanced diet low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is crucial for maintaining overall health, including the immune system. A high-fiber diet nourishes the gut microbiota. Furthermore, obtaining enough vitamins and minerals helps the immune system produce the necessary cells, antibodies, and molecules to combat diseases.

Guidance for getting adequate sleep.

To maintain a strong immune system, it’s important for children to get adequate sleep. Insufficient sleep can hinder the production of cytokines, which are essential for fighting infections. The recommended hours of sleep for different age groups are:

Infants 0 to 3 months old: 14 to 17 hours a day

Infants 4 to 11 months old: 12 to 16 hours a day

Toddlers 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours a day

Children 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours a day

Children 6 to 12 years: 9 to 12 hours a day

Teenagers 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours a day

* The World Health Organization
**The American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Boosting Immunity from Within 

Taking care of your child’s digestive health, where most of the immune system is located, can promote overall wellness and reduce the risk of infections. A thriving gut microbiome leads to better health and well-being.

Vitamin D for Optimal Health 

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in supporting normal growth and bone health in children and maintaining a robust immune system. It is particularly important for infants and children during their rapid growth stages.

Controlling the Spread of Illnesses 

There are several steps you can take to limit the spread of infections, maintain good health for your family, and minimize time off due to illness.

  • Practice frequent hand washing with soap and water, especially after coming home from day care, work, or using public transportation. 
  • Avoid using the same towel. 
  • Avoid gathering in crowded places during the cold and flu season. 
  • Educate your child to cough or sneeze into a tissue or the inside of their elbow instead of their hand. 
  • Keep your child home if they are feeling unwell.