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Parents of young children know that getting through winter without their kids getting sick at least once is almost impossible, so why is it that children get sick more often than adults, and is it something we should be avoiding?

Doctors’ waiting rooms, particularly in winter, are filled with tots with streaming noses and hacking coughs. Some may get sick more often with as many as eight to ten colds a year, leaving parents feeling like perpetual snot-wipers.

Adults are able to make choices that help us stay healthy, but little ones need our help. And getting insight into why kids get sick more often is the first step to getting them healthy.

Immunity matters 
The immune system, a complex network of tissues, cells and organs that work together, is our body’s defence against infection. Different white blood cells (or leukocytes) combine to seek and destroy disease-causing organisms.

When antigens (foreign substances) are detected, several types of cells respond, triggering lymphocytes to produce antibodies, which block and eliminate the intruder. Once produced, these stay in the body, so that if the same antigen is encountered again, the antibodies are ready.

Immunisations work in the same way, preventing certain diseases by allowing the body to produce the necessary antibodies.

Everyone is born with innate (or natural) immunity, a type of general protection. Passive immunity is “borrowed” from another source temporarily, such as when a mother passes her antibodies to her baby in breast milk, giving the baby temporary immunity to diseases the mother has been exposed to. Adaptive (or active) immunity develops throughout our lives as we are exposed to diseases or immunised against diseases through vaccination.

From the ‘how’ to the ‘why’
Young children get sick more than adults mainly because they haven’t yet built up the necessary immunity to the host of viruses out there. And then, of course, they spend time with other children who are similarly only starting out on the path to immunity. When kids cough and sneeze, germs end up on their hands and are spread when they touch each other (which they do a lot!) – as well as shared toys. Tiny tots love putting everything in their mouths – making the bugs’ job that much easier.

It’s natural and educational for infants to touch everything new and, very often, to put awful things in their mouths, and many moms are quick to stop this ‘disgusting’ behaviour. But before you reach for the antibacterial soap, hand sanitiser or wet wipes, consider this. While it’s important to be clean, a mounting body of research suggests that exposing infants to germs may provide them with greater protection from allergic disorders in later life.

Allergic disorders like asthma, eczema and seasonal food allergies come about when the body over-reacts to antigens in the environment, and dermatologists believe that the rise in these disorders comes from babies been kept in environments where they aren’t exposed to germs, so instead of building a strong immune system, the body over-reacts.

Known as the ‘Hygiene hypothesis’, this line of thinking suggests that young children need exposure to parasites, bacteria and viruses to prevent the development of allergic disorders and autoimmune diseases in adulthood.

Dr. Thom McDade, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University, points out that just as a baby’s brain needs stimulation, input and interaction to develop normally, so too the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself.

Quoted by WebMD, Prof McDade’s recent study found that children who were exposed to more animal faeces and had more cases of diarrhoea before age two had less incidence of inflammation in the body as they grew into adulthood. Inflammation has been linked to many chronic adulthood illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Most of the germs that live on our bodies have been around for millions of years. As our lifestyles have changed over the centuries, some bugs, including those that live in the gut and perform important functions for our digestion, etc., are changing or disappearing.

Antibiotics and the immune system
The overuse of antibiotics also plays a big role in weakening the immune system’s ability to fight infection. Until fairly recently, antibiotics were routinely prescribed and demanded by patients, even when they weren’t indicated, and they are also present in the food we eat. The World Health Organisation states there is clear scientific evidence that overuse of antibiotics in meat production is the most important source of resistant strains of harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli and MRSA. These resistant bugs can pass from animals to humans in a number of ways, but mainly through food. There are already ‘superbugs’ that are highly resistant to antibiotics of last resort, which can have serious consequences.

So, when we overzealously sanitise our children’s environment or treat every sniffle as a life-threatening illness, we may be depriving them of the opportunity to build a strong immune system.

It seems, then, as with most things, keeping children healthy and helping them to avoid future ill-health requires balance and a good dose of common sense.

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