It’s that time of year again—when teens trade in their daily sleep-in routine for the dreaded alarm clock, kids are cooped up in classrooms and shuttled to after-school activities, and parents everywhere are stocking up on tissues and cough drops. There’s no denying the beginning of the school year tends to signal the start of cold and flu season.
Why are we more susceptible to germs at this time of year, what can we do to prevent getting sick, and why can the flu shot make you feel ill? We talked with local doctors and nurses to get the scoop on how to survive the upcoming season.
Although research has generally been inconclusive on the topic of why we’re more susceptible to colds and flu in the colder seasons, Lynda Stuber, nurse practitioner at Wayzata Children’s Clinic, has noticed that it’s a vicious cycle. “In winter, you’re indoors more, and since everything is closed up, germs are more concentrated,” she says. “Children get exposed to viruses and their resistance goes down, so they pick up another one and it can seem like they’re sick all winter.”
Lorene Freehill, pediatrician ath South Lake Pediatrics in Minnetonka, also suggests “the colder and drier air makes our nasal mucous membranes more susceptible to infection with a virus.”
Tips for staying healthy
- Wash hands thoroughly. Lather up for two rounds of “Happy Birthday” to kill off germs picked up touching doorknobs, railings, pencil sharpeners—to name only a few places for transmission.
- Get plenty of sleep. “Our immune systems are closely linked to being well rested,” explains Freehill. “Fatigue stresses our bodies and decreases our ability to fight off infection.” Stuber recommends children get the following amount of sleep daily: ages 1–3: 12–14 hours, 3–6 years: 11–12 hours, 7–12 years: 10–11 hours, and 12–18: get 8–9 hours.
- Eat healthy. Food is always important for overall health, but when your body is exposed to germs, a well-rounded diet is even more important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Freehill says blueberries, spinach, tomatoes and sweet potatoes are all good options for antioxidant-rich foods. Stuber also recommends yogurt since it contains probiotics, which aid in digestion and help keep your stomach happy.
- Keep kids home when they are sick. Although kids can’t stay home every day they have a cold, if they have a high fever or are especially run-down, staying home will prevent the spread of infection and allow your child’s natural resistance to build up to fight off future illness.
- Get a flu shot. Both experts agree on this one.
Common misconceptions revealed
- The flu shot cannot cause the flu. Although you may experience flu-like symptoms, “there is no live virus in the shot, so what you’re experiencing is just your body building up immunity,” explains Stuber.
- Yellow or green mucus does not necessarily indicate a sinus infection. Other factors are better indicators, like if the sickness has lasted longer than 10–14 days or a high fever is present.
- The stomach flu is not influenza and is not prevented by the flu shot. Influenza (“the flu”) typically involves fever, muscle/joint pains, congestion, sore throat and cough. Gastroenteritis (“the stomach flu”) may include vomiting, diarrhea and fever, explains Freehill.
Adults and children do not metabolize medication the same, so decongestants and multi-symptom cold remedies that adults use will give kids younger than 12 all of the side effects with few of the benefits, warns Freehill. The best option for kids is “symptomatic supportive care, like nasal saline drops and cool air humidifiers, which keep the nasal mucous moist and help fight off infection,” she says. And remember, antibiotics will not help a viral infection like a cold or the flu; our bodies need to fight them off on their own.