5 Ways to Build Your Child’s Healthy Immune System
Whether Pediatrician Hassan Alzein is treating a child for a ragged cough, a nasty rash, a fever, or any other kind of ailment, the question this physician hears most from parents and caregivers is, “How can I keep this from happening again?” Dr. Alzein, of Alzein Pediatrics in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, explains that building a robust immune system in children is key to helping kids avoid or fight disease and illness, sustain fewer and less severe injuries, recover faster from any injuries, and prevent chronic health problems in adulthood. Parents, he says, have a tremendous impact in building a child’s healthy immune system, from birth all the way into young adulthood.
How to Start Building Your Child’s Immune System
1. Get Your Child Vaccinated
To start, Dr. Alzein says, make sure your child’s vaccinations are up to date. The life-threatening diseases that vaccines prevent, such as measles, polio, mumps, whooping cough and rubella, are still present around us. If your child is infected with one of these diseases, their health will be dramatically impacted. Preventable diseases can damage brains, hearts, lungs, kidneys, muscles, bones and the nervous system. Getting a flu shot every year protects your child against the most likely strains of influenza virus, keeping them healthy throughout the winter and spring. Safe, scientifically tested and proven childhood vaccines administered according to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended schedule stimulate the production of antibodies in your child, giving them a stronger immune system.
2. Make Sure Your Child Gets Proper Sleep
Proper sleep is also important to support a healthy immune system. A recent study found that adequate sound sleep builds T cells, an immune cell that fight a wide variety of viruses, including HIV, cancer, herpes and the flu. The effects of poor sleep can follow your child into adulthood. Poor sleep is associated with chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, weight gain, cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of Type II diabetes. Infants up to the age of 12 months should get about 14-17 hours of sleep each day, with naps in the morning and afternoon and then sleeping longer during the night. Toddlers up to 3 years old should still be logging about 12-15 hours every day, with an afternoon nap. Preschool children up to age 5 require between 10-13 hours of sleep. From ages 6-13, your child still needs about 9-11 hours of sleep each day. Your teenagers should sleep 8-10 hours a day. If your teenager is not getting a minimum of 8 hours of sleep each night, discuss scheduling and activity changes to make that possible.
3. Stay Away From Secondhand Smoke
Dr. Alzein recommends parents and caregivers be vigilant about not allowing children to be exposed to secondhand smoke. “There is no level of exposure to secondhand smoke that is acceptable,” Dr. Alzein says. “Children who are exposed to any secondhand smoke will always have poorer health. They contract more bronchitis and pneumonia. They experience more ear infections, more respiratory infections, and have more frequent and more severe asthma attacks. Secondhand smoke dramatically increases the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).” Secondhand smoke will compromise your child’s brain, lung and vascular system development and function permanently, making them more at risk for high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and stroke as adults.
4. Encourage Exercise
Another immune booster Dr. Alzein recommends is outdoor exercise. “Children need exposure to sunlight as it helps their bodies create vitamin D, essential to a healthy immune system and calcium levels. Recent studies indicate it may lower the risk of Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.” Dr. Alzein stresses it’s important to always apply sunscreen to your child’s exposed skin before going in the sun. “Sunscreen does not block your child’s ability to produce Vitamin D, but it does protect them from skin cancer.” Outside exercise may help flush bacteria out of lungs, and it improves the functioning and circulation of antibodies and white blood cells. Perhaps most importantly, outdoor exercise reduces stress hormones which damage your child’s ability to fight off illness. Making sure your child gets outdoors every day helps establish a healthy habit for life.
5. A Healthy Diet
A healthy diet is also a path to a healthy body, says Dr. Alzein. “Highly processed foods with lots of added salt and sugar damages the body’s ability to produce and repair immune cells and antibodies. They also put your child at risk for weight gain, which increases inflammation, further compromising their immune system.” Replacing those foods with fresh, natural and whole foods gives children infection-fighting vitamins, minerals and nutrients, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. A healthy diet of vegetables and fruits, lean proteins and whole grains provides immune and inflammatory response boosters and healthy gut bacteria. It also reduces the risk of Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic diseases in adulthood. Dr. Alzein emphasizes the benefits of, in particular, fresh or frozen berries, broccoli, spinach, and sweet potatoes. Add in Greek yogurt, oats, almonds and seeds like pumpkin, sunflower and flax. Include salmon, eggs and mushrooms.
A Quick Summary
Make sure your child is current with all vaccinations and gets a flu shot each fall by Halloween. Ensure that your children are getting sound, adequate sleep for their age – and take steps to adjust activity participation if they are not.
If you smoke, quit now and never allow your child to be in a car or building where someone is smoking, or has smoked recently. Request that smokers wear clean clothes and wash their hands before engaging with your children. Give your children at least 30 minutes of outdoor exercise every day, or in harsh weather, as much as possible. Participate yourself to boost your own immune system!
Feed your child whole, fresh and natural foods to provide the nutrients they need to grow strong and stay healthy – you’ll benefit from a cleaner menu too, lowering your blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your risk of chronic illnesses. If children still seem to be catching too many colds or running a fever too often, Dr. Alzein recommends making an appointment with a trusted pediatrician. “Consulting a physician can rule out more serious conditions, give you advice unique to your child’s health and give you confidence in your care of your child’s immune system for healthy growth and development.”
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