No magic elixir can prevent children from developing occasional colds and viruses, but takings steps to boost their immune system can minimize their chances of catching every bug that winds its way through the daycare center or school.
"The immune system helps us fight infections," says family medicine specialist Palak Shroff, MD, at University Hospitals Family Medicine in Painesville, Onio.
"Immunity develops over time, so the more someone gets exposed, the more the immune system develops. Kids' whole environment is new, but over time, their immunity will develop and get better."
According to Dr. Shroff, parents can take eight steps to boost their child's immunity, including:
Breastfeed. Boosting a child's immunity should begin on day one with the first feeding. Breastfed babies benefit from several days of carbohydrate-, protein- and antibody-rich colostrum followed by a year or so of regular breastmilk. "During breastfeeding, the mother's immunity transfers to the child," Dr. Shroff says.
Vaccinate. Making sure kids receive all recommended vaccines is one of the best ways to prevent them from catching potentially dangerous illnesses, such as pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, hepatitis, chicken pox and others.
"All children over 6 months of age should get a flu shot," she says. "Sometimes small kids get the flu and that develops into pneumonia, then they struggle to get better for a long time."
Nourish them well. Feed kids a balanced diet filled with fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants, vitamins and minerals abundant in produce are essential to boosting the immune system.
Promote good sleep habits. When kids (and parents, too) aren't well-rested, their bodies lose their natural defense mechanisms and don't fight off illness effectively.
Exercise. Encourage kids to run around the back yard or participate in team sports. Physical activity promotes better blood circulation and helps the lungs and heart work better, which in turn, boosts immunity.
Practice good hygiene. Staying clean lessens the threat of contracting an infection. Encourage kids to wash their hands after using the bathroom or before eating, cover their mouth when they cough and never share their toothbrush. Make sure to replace their toothbrush following a bout of strep throat.
Shield them from secondhand smoke. Any allergen will worsen a child's immunity, and secondhand smoke is no exception. Kids who are exposed to cigarette smoke on a regular basis tend to develop respiratory infections.
Don't rely on antibiotics. All upper respiratory illnesses, including most coughs and colds, are viral. That means they won't respond to antibiotics, so don't pressure your doctor to prescribe them. When antibiotics are overused, bacteria develop resistance to them. So, if your little one catches a bacterial illness that would normally be treated with an antibiotic, the drug may not work. Your best bet is to let most viral illnesses run their course - your child will get better and further develop immunity.
It's important to remember that garden-variety colds, strep throats and occasional viruses are a normal part of childhood - and a necessary means of building your child's immunity. But if you think your youngster is falling ill more often than other kids, it's time to check in with the pediatrician.
"There are disorders, although they are rare, with a weakened immune system because of a child's genetic makeup," Dr. Shroff says. "Your doctor can keep an eye on what kind of infection your child is going through and test for (the disorders), if necessary."