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Flu season & why kids seem to get sicker in the winter

Colds, flus & other viruses circulate more easily in the winter months, but cold weather is not actually the culprit.

Wintertime is known for special holidays, cooler weather, and… colds? Viral illnesses in particular notoriously increase during winter months among children and adults. While this is a known fact, you may have been wondering why. Read on to learn more about this phenomenon.

Why do people get sick during the winter?

When cold weather sets in, we tend to see an increase in illnesses. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, the cold itself is not what causes people to get sick. During the winter months, we tend to stay indoors to keep out of the cold. Instead of going outside for recess, children may play board games inside, or enjoy more boisterous games like dodgeball in the school gym. With more time inside, there is a greater incidence of rebreathing air from other children. Many wintertime illnesses are spread through droplets that hang in the air after exhalation. Furthermore, stress and exhaustion may be increased during wintertime due to holiday commitments.

Rebreathing and sharing air with others. Less outdoors time. Weakened immune systems: stress. Does the cold weather actually increase susceptibility?

Why are children so susceptible?

It is not unusual for children to bring illnesses home with them from daycare or school. They are more susceptible to illness for several reasons. Children are not known for good hand washing habits. Furthermore, they are likely to touch contaminated surfaces and then rub their eyes or put their hands in their mouth. They are less likely to cover their mouths and noses when coughing and sneezing, and therefore are exposed to the germs of other children around them. Kids also may use their hands or sleeves to wipe their runny noses instead of getting a tissue. All of these less-than-hygienic practices result in a high incidence of sickness in children.

What are some common winter illnesses?

Colds, influenza, and strep throat are all common winter illnesses. In recent years, COVID-19 has joined the list of common illnesses, and is transmitted more readily in environments where people are rebreathing air[1]. Colds, the flu, and COVID-19 are all caused by viruses, while strep throat is caused by bacteria. Even though there is an increased incidence of sickness during the winter, anyone can catch these illnesses at any time of the year.

How can I protect myself and my child?

Regardless of the type of germs that cause sickness, there are a few very simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your child from falling ill. Teaching children how to effectively wash their hands and encouraging them to wash them after using the restroom, after touching contaminated surfaces, and before eating is key. Hand sanitizer is an easy on-the-go option for when you are not at home. Masking can help prevent the spread of illness, particularly for respiratory based disease such as the flu and COVID-19[1]. If you are sick, masking protects those around you from inhaling germs contained in your respiratory droplets.

Adequate rest and nutrition are necessary to maintain the body’s immune system[2]. With a healthy immune system, kids and adults alike are more likely to be able to fight off germs before they cause illness. A healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, protein, and plenty of water. If certain nutrients are lacking, vitamin supplements may be helpful[2]. Additionally, our body’s natural micro-ecosystem of bacteria, known as the microbiome, has an impact on our resistance to illness[3]. Eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi aids in building healthy gut bacteria. Another option is commercially available oral probiotics. Generally, the better you care for your body, the better it cares for you!

Rachel Stroble

Rachel Stroble is a researcher, professor of dental hygiene at Rose State College in Oklahoma, and registered dental hygienist with 10 years of experience in dentistry. She supports education in the classroom with her own students, in the professional community through the development and presentation of continuing education courses, and you may have seen her articles in RDH Magazine, Today’s RDH, and the Oklahoma Dental Association Journal. She is an innovative clinician and is always looking for ways to hold the door open for other dental professionals.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control. (2022, August 11). How COVID-19 Spreads. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html
  2. Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Nutrition and Immunity. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/nutrition-and-immunity/
  3. Oh, S. F., Praveena, T., Song, H., Yoo, J.-S., Jung, D.-J., Erturk-Hasdemir, D., Hwang, Y. S., Lee, C. C., Le Nours, J., Kim, H., Lee, J., Blumberg, R. S., Rossjohn, J., Park, S. B., & Kasper, D. L. (2021). Host immunomodulatory lipids created by symbionts from dietary amino acids. Nature (London), 600(7888), 302–307. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04083-0