The week before school started I announced, “I give us 2-4 weeks before we’ve all got colds.”
I was wrong.
After avoiding it for two and a half years, my 14-year-old daughter tested positive for COVID the very first full day of school.
When I was a teacher, my first year I was certain I was going to run out of sick days. I was sick so often that having a headache, sniffles, fatigue, a slight cough and other symptoms started to feel like my new baseline. My second year I was delighted when it was almost a month after the beginning of school before I had to take my first sick day. It got better after that.
Until my own children started going to school.
With every first day of school, I knew what was coming. Any time we changed schools for a move, promotion or educational need, I knew what was coming. And after a year of virtual school during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we finally went back to in person school, I knew what was coming.
I’m no longer a teacher (well, not that kind of teacher, I still teach as a relationship and parenting coach). But, with eight children, I know the drill. We deal with plenty of stomach bugs, colds and other illnesses in our family. As a family of 10 where our youngest is a toddler, and with all of us under one roof, if we get sick and whatever it is runs through all of us, it can take up to two months for us to fully recover. Keeping us all healthy is a full-time job.
Which is why I have learned everything I can on how to support a healthy immune system. And, since some sick days are inevitable, I’ve also spent time figuring out how to survive, er, manage, when we do succumb.
Proactively Support Your Immune System
According to Harvard Health, the CDC and other leading health organizations, there are several important ways we can support our immune system for optimal health. Our family doctor calls this maintaining our “pillars of health.” We stress the immune system, causing more vulnerability to pathogens, when we take away one or more of those pillars.
While you can’t exactly “boost” your immune system (it isn’t a rocket ship), you can support it in functioning well by taking care of the pillars of health it needs to stay strong. Those pillars are:
- Physical activity
Sleep is by far the most important. The body does a lot of work while we sleep, including shoring up defenses against invaders like the common cold, flu virus, other viruses and bacteria.
Nutrition impacts our immune system because several micronutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin D, or zinc help defend the body from pathogens. But, be aware that megadosing these nutrients is dangerous. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before using any supplements or giving them to your child.
Physical activity keeps our other systems functioning well, particularly the cardiovascular system, which is responsible for distributing the immune system’s defenses throughout the body. Heart health keeps it all flowing.
Preventing Sickness: What We Know Works
There is some debate on the most effective measures for preventing sickness and, though some evidence is crystal clear, other research is inconclusive. Still, here are some sure-fire ways we know reduce our chances of getting sick:
- Sleeping (yes, again!)
- Hand washing
- Safe-guarding against chronic stress
- Relationship with your healthcare provider
I just can’t get away from how key sleep is in keeping us healthy. Getting the rest your body needs can not only help you better fight off viruses and bacteria, but it can also reduce the severity and duration of sickness when it does happen. Not getting enough sleep will mean longer illness. Protect sleep, protect health.
It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when healthcare providers didn’t regularly wash their hands between patients even when doing surgery but, thankfully, they eventually figured out that hand washing can stop the spread of disease. Today proper hand washing is still one of the most effective ways to prevent sickness. According to the CDC, hand washing with soap reduces:
- The number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 23-40%
- Diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58%
- Respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16-21%
Staying hydrated keeps your mucus membranes moist and helps your blood to circulate faster – getting those important white blood cells where they need to go faster. Learning to destress and prioritizing preventive healthcare are also in your favor.
How to Survive Sickness With Young Kids
It’s normal to get sick from time to time – this is actually an important part of how the immune system learns to fight better. Still, surviving those bouts of sickness with young children can be challenging and can weaken your own immune system, too. Here are some of the strategies we use in our home and that have helped our coaching clients as well.
1. Catch it Early
Don’t dismiss the tickle in your throat, the unusually fussy toddler, or the low energy preschooler. These and other early signs of illness are your chance to act fast to lessen the severity and shorten the duration of whatever it is.
2. Stay Home
Ensure rest and prevent spreading whatever it is to others by staying home whenever possible when there is illness in the home.
3. Sleep, Whatever it Takes
If the parents are sick this can be challenging but finding ways to sleep or at least rest will make all the difference. Nap together, rest on the bed while the kids drive toy cars on your back, close off a room and make it a safe space for kids to play while you rest, binge a favorite show (we suggest Bluey!), whatever it takes, get sleep!
Help the body relax and put energy toward getting better with easy comfort foods, favorite soft pajamas, familiar shows and movies, etc. If I suspect sickness is brewing, I make a huge pot of chicken soup full of veggies and garlic to support the immune system, bring comfort, and to have leftovers for a few days that are easy to warm up.
5. Embrace the Screen
We’re a screen light family. Our kids don’t have tablets and we use minimal screen time during the week, saving screen time for the weekends. Except when there is illness in the house. Then all bets are off. Screen time can entertain the sick ones who need to rest or distract the healthy younger ones who don’t.
6. Designate a Sick Space
Convert a room into a sick bay with snacks, medicine, comfort items and entertainment and keep everything in easy reach. This cuts down on trips back and forth to get things. Create a nest area for little ones with soft blankets and extra pillows (non-toxic is best). If very little ones are involved, be sure furniture is anchored to the wall, outlets are covered, window cords and cables are out of reach, and look for any other possible safety hazards you can address.
7. Set Realistic Expectations
Be honest with yourself. Chances are strong you’re not going to get as much done. Maybe you won’t be able to cook your usual meals (hard to manage when holding a feverish child all day) or check much off your to-do list or even manage the minimal regular day-to-day stuff. What can you make peace with letting slide?
Finally, don’t forget to ask for help! There is no reason anyone should be expected to do it all but that’s particularly true when you, your partner or your child is ill. It isn’t noble or strong to not ask for help when you need it. In fact, it’s isolating and harmful. We all need help, that is normal. Needing and giving help is part of what keeps a community connected – and healthy!