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How to “Winterize” Your Child.

By Howard Hinestroza, MD MSc | Pediatrics

With some of the mildest temperatures on record, this has been an atypical winter. We can thank global warming for that. Yet the season is not over yet. Many of us are still coming down with the common cold.

Why do we fall victims to respiratory infections like the one caused by the “rhinovirus,” which is perhaps the most notorious culprit of all? Some studies have demonstrated that incidences of acute upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) are directly correlated to breathing cold air that chills the body surface, with most URTIs occurring in cold weather. However, despite some expert support, this matter remains controversial.

Generally, our immune systems are able to protect our cells from these viruses. However, these mechanisms are only effective when we’re at a core body temperature of 98.6 degrees. A recent study showed that cold weather could alter airway cells, inhibiting their ability to mount a natural immune reaction against the common cold agents. Therefore, our grandmothers were right when they told us to cover our heads and mouths to prevent “catching” a cold.  We actually do lose about 10% of our body heat through the head—though not 40-50% as previously thought.

One misconception is that people can catch the flu simply by going out without a coat. The truth is that the only way to get it is exposure to the influenza virus.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a future study revealed that our defenses against the flu could also be temperature dependent. Pneumonia also stems from a viral infection, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Findings show that a lower proportion of these lung infections have bacterial causes. This may help reduce the high rate of antibiotics used to treat pediatric pneumonias.

How else can we help our defenses to fend off these viral critters?

Even though I didn’t find evidence in the literature correlating the development of URTIs with the ingestion of cold foods or liquids, I still recommend oatmeal for breakfast and non-caffeinated fluids like ginger lemon tea to warm the body and start the day.

The herb Echinacea may reduce the risk of URTIs by up to 58%, according to a meta-analysis of studies in The Lancet. The Elderberry plant has been studied and is believed to have immune boosting properties that could be effective against respiratory viruses as well.

So while you’re preparing for the season, take a moment and review the following recommendations to “winterize” your child. These can be used for the entire family– including you!

  • An active child is a healthy child. Minimize screen exposure (television, iPad, phone) to less than 3 hours a day. Encourage your child to exercise regularly. This will help them maintain a healthy mind, body, and immune system.
  • Children should sleep 9-11 hours daily. Their bodies need to be well rested to ward off viral invaders.
  • Children should also dress in warm, breathable material.  Woolen undershirts or pullovers are excellent options.
  • Children can take 5-10mg of Zinc daily. This mineral has been studied in the pediatric population both for diarrheal treatment and as an immune booster.
  • While Vitamin C won’t necessarily prevention, taking supplements before the onset of a cold may shorten the duration of symptoms. Vitamin C could also benefit children who attend group childcare during the winter. I recommend taking 30 mg per day, for two weeks.

When it comes to reducing the catch or spread of viruses, one simple method works best: hand washing with soap.  This is especially important for young children, because they don’t tend to wash their hands on their own. Introducing good hygiene practices can be a powerful way of protecting both kids and communities.

Good luck!