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Viral Survival

Helping your kids through infections

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In the wake of a surge of respiratory infections in late 2022, parents are looking ahead with some trepidation and wondering how we can best support our kids. Dr. Caroline Meyer, a naturopathic doctor with a passion for pediatric medicine, shares her key strategies for surviving the upcoming virus season.

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Immunity debt

Parents, including myself, wonder what happened last year. Why were there so many hospitalizations? A coincidence of several factors may have created the perfect viral storm.

Our immune systems need exposure to viruses to protect us from infection. Lower levels of infections through the pandemic may have decreased our resistance to infection, a concept known as “immunity debt.”

When kids returned to activities last fall, rates of common illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) surged. An early and robust flu season, ongoing COVID infections, and shortages of pain and fever medicine for children all contributed to more pediatric hospital admissions.

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Virus basics

Unlike bacteria, viruses lack their own cellular structure. Viruses are simply strands of genetic material that hijack other cells to drive ongoing replication and spread. The upshot of this sabotage is that virally infected cells look just like our own cells.

Drugs such as antibiotics, which work by targeting the differences between bacterial and healthy cells, are completely ineffective against viruses.

Antiviral medications do exist for the flu, RSV, and COVID-19 but benefit only those at high risk of complications. For most people, our immune systems are the ones doing the heavy lifting of clearing infection and restoring health. Supporting immune function is the key to coping with viral infections.

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How to avoid going viral

Meyer highlights the importance of healthy habits, mental health, and nutrient testing for infection prevention.

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Sleep

Sleep has a significant role in immunity; over the pandemic, families reported later bedtimes and more screen time. Bedtime screen use disturbs sleep, and poor sleep can lead to more infections. Reinforcing bedtime routines and limiting nighttime access to devices can build immunity.

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Movement

Movement is the perfect immune system primer. In a study of preschoolers, kids moving less had more frequent and more severe infections. Exercise also improves sleep quality, providing indirect but important immune effects. Get kids (and yourself) out and moving daily.

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Diet

Diet matters. Children who eat more fruits and vegetables get fewer infections. Lockdowns saw kids consuming more sugary drinks and snacks, which hamper immune function. “If you are having something daily,” advises Meyer, “it becomes your diet, not a treat.” Snack on healthy foods with your kids to tune up your immune system and theirs.

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Mental health

Anxiety and depression have doubled among kids and teens since 2019, and Meyer sees this first-hand. Emotional distress impairs the immune system and has impacts on food choices, sleep patterns, and exercise. Poor mental health cuts kids off from these essential immune supports. Reach out for support if mental health challenges are present in your family.

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Nutrient deficiencies

Nutrient deficiencies can undermine immunity. One teen patient seeing Meyer had COVID on five separate occasions. Meyer tested her vitamin D level and uncovered a profound deficiency. Since starting on appropriate supplementation, the teen has not had COVID again. Low stores of iron and zinc can also reduce resistance to infection. Get your kids checked for deficiencies if they’re having recurrent infections.

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Supporting your child through infection

When children do get sick (and they will), supportive treatments allow your immune system and your child to recover well.

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Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy is a favourite of Meyer’s, owing to its simplicity and effectiveness in symptom management. Steam from a shower (with or without an essential-oil based “steamer”) can ease breathing. Gargling with salt water can soothe a sore throat while cool cloths and lukewarm baths can reduce discomfort from fever. Sinus rinses can help clear nasal passages of congestion.

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An onion a day …

A traditional remedy for ear pain involves wrapping a cut and steamed onion in cloth and placing it over the affected ear. While this won’t cure infection, many grateful parents have thanked Meyer for this soothing solution. Chopped, steamed onion can also be wrapped and applied to congested chests to loosen mucus.

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Honey

Honey has been used as a food and medicine for more than 8,000 years and has well-documented antiviral properties. Studies have found that taking honey may reduce cough in children as effectively as some medications.

Note: do not give honey to children under one year of age.

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Elderberry

Elderberry syrup is another favourite for Meyer. She encourages families to try simple recipes to make this treatment at home. Elderberry syrup reduces respiratory symptoms, and the honey base is a hit with many kids.

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When to get help

While many infections can be managed at home, urgent care is needed in the following cases.

  • difficulty breathing or blue lips
  • dehydration (not urinating, dry lips)
  • pain that doesn’t improve with medication
  • seizure
  • fever in kids 12 weeks or younger

If your parental spidey-senses tell you that something is not right, take your child to hospital. Less urgent care is suggested in cases where symptoms haven’t improved after a few days.

In recent years, we’ve avoided infection at all costs. Viral infections are a fact of childhood and can support future immunity. Prioritizing physical and emotional supports and planning for effective symptom management will help our children and our immune systems to thrive through virus season.

Want more immune support?

Talk to your health care practitioner about these supplements.

Supplement

Best form for kids

Actions

vitamin D

drops

deficiencies are associated with higher infection rates and longer/more severe illnesses

probiotics

powder or liquid

can prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotic use; may reduce duration of colds

zinc

lozenges

reduces number of ear infections and speeds recovery

Take action against viruses!

Wash, wash, wash your hands

Handwash before eating, after bathroom use, and on return from outside your home.

Stay home when sick

Keep your cold to yourself!

Cover nose and mouth when sneezing

Use a tissue or sleeve.

Snack wisely

Store fruits and veggies where kids can easily serve themselves.

Protect sleep

Prioritize sleep, especially through periods of high viral activity.

Talk about it

Get support for mental health concerns.

RSV fact

By the age of two, more than 97 percent of toddlers will have contracted RSV.

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