In my family medicine practice, I make it a point to tell new parents at their baby’s 9-month well visit, “If she hasn’t had a fever yet, there’s a good chance she’ll have one before I see you back for the 12 month checkup.”
Although it sounds alarming, getting sick with viral illnesses, colds, and flus is vital to the proper development of a child’s immune system, and it’s usually between the window of 9 and 12 months of age that a baby’s immune system first takes a robust stab at this whole fighting-off-infections-thing.
Much like it’s important to exercise the muscles of the arms so they become strong, it’s likewise essential to exercise the immune system, exposing children to different types of germs (within reason) and letting their immune systems try and duke it out. Getting colds and flus are an important part of that immunological development.
Germophobia is causing allergies and autoimmune diseases
It’s no secret that we’re in an allergy epidemic in America. The rate of asthma has tripled in industrialized countries over the last three decades. One in five children has eczema, and 60-80% of kids with eczema have food intolerances. Peanut allergies alone have doubled in frequency in between the years of 1990 and 2000.
Immunologists have been warning us for years that our germophobia, hypersanitation, and intense fear of common, self-limiting diseases is largely responsible for this epidemic. With a lack of microbes to fight off, the immune system goes haywire and begins attacking itself and hyper-reacting to things like peanuts, dust mites, dog dander, and grass. This link between hypersanitation and autoimmune disease is also called the Hygiene Hypothesis. (Check out our cool infographic:)
Here are some statistics to prove it:
- Kids in daycare get a ton of self-limiting illnesses, but they have lower rates of allergic diseases later in life
- Kids who grow up on farms or with pets have lower rates of allergic conditions
- Women who have tapeworms are less likely to have autoimmune diseases
- Poor inner city kids who have rodents and cockroaches in their apartment buildings have lower rates of asthma than children in affluent neighborhoods
- Eczema and hayfever first appeared among the affluent class
Certain types of infections, however, do require intervention and treatment. Seeing your local naturopathic physician or functional medicine pediatrician is a great way to catch the conditions that require treatment, versus those that simply require patience, snuggles, and chicken soup.
Here are 4 easy ways to let a child’s immune system to develop to its fullest potential:
Let Kids Get Dirty!
Literally! It’s time we lock up the tablets and kick the kids out of the house to go play in the yard, roll around in the dirt, and get licked by the neighbor’s dog. Nature isn’t just wonderful for making children calmer and happier; it’s also full of the friendly microbes that kids need to have a balanced immune system.
Throw out the hand sanitizer, bleach wipes, and anti-bacterial soaps.
Unless a child has HIV, in in cancer treatment, or is otherwise immunosuppressed, there’s no need to hyper-fixate on sanitation. Coddling a developing immune system is very likely to backfire down the line. Hand washing with regular castile soap before meals and before bed is all that most kids need. In fact, the FDA recently banned the use of antibacterial soaps, saying that the risks outweighed the benefits.
Use antibiotics sparingly
It’s important for both parents and doctors to start questioning when a child truly needs an antibiotic versus a “tincture of time.” Many common childhood illnesses, such as ear infections, are self-limiting and require no antibiotic treatment whatsoever. Aside from denying the immune system an opportunity to get stronger (remember: you need to lift weights to get strong muscles!), antibiotics also disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, further increasing the risk of allergic and autoimmune conditions, as well as future colds and flus.
Let Fevers Run Their Course
I usually advise parents in my practice to leave the Tylenol on the shelf and let their kiddos get fevers up to 104 degrees F when they’re sick. Fevers not only shorten the duration of illnesses, but they also are a precious opportunity for the child’s immune system to mature and grow. For more information about fevers check out Dr. Erika’s blog post: Don’t Suppress a Fever (and why I don’t like Tylenol.)