Many parents assume that colds, flu, and other common illnesses are simply part of the curriculum when they send their children off to school or daycare. That’s not surprising since kids can “catch” five to ten colds per year, especially during the fall and winter months. (3)
But are common ailments such as the common cold and flu inevitable when kids go back to school? With proper prevention, you may be able to reduce their risk of illness.
Common childhood illnesses
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the following are among the most common viral or bacterial illnesses experienced by school-aged children:
- Ear infections
- Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
- Influenza (flu)
- Strep throat (4)
Did you know? The common cold can be caused by one of 200 different viruses. Most, however, are caused by a member of the rhinovirus family. (20)
Back to school checklist to avoid sickness
Helping families maintain their defenses as kids head back to school often requires a few easy-to-implement strategies. Here are three of the top preventative habits, backed by science.
Wash your hands frequently
Lathering up regularly is one of the simplest ways to prevent sharing pathogens. Most upper respiratory viruses are spread by direct contact, and something as simple as sneezing into your hand then touching a doorknob, desk, or phone could spread the pathogen. (11)
Eating a balanced diet will provide the nutrients a healthy immune system needs to function optimally and defend the body against pathogens. Protein from foods including lean meat, seafood, poultry, and soy products supports the strength and recovery of the immune system, and essential nutrients support its function. (12)
Get enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep can suppress the immune system and increase the odds of contracting the common cold or flu. People who are sleep deprived develop fewer antibodies and are more prone to chronic inflammation. (1) The amount of sleep you need depends on your age. For example, the National Sleep Foundation notes that a preschooler needs ten to 13 hours of sleep per night, while a school-aged child needs nine to 11 hours. Adults, on the other hand, should strive for seven to nine hours every night. (17)
Did you know? Kids who get enough sleep aren’t just healthier. According to research in the journal PLoS One, they are more motivated, tend to pay more attention in class, and perform better academically. (9)
5 supplements to keep families healthy
Prevention can go a long way toward keeping kids and parents healthy during the back-to-school season. Supplementing with one or more of the following herbs and nutrients can support immunity. If a child (or parent) does come down with something, certain supplements can also ease symptoms and often shorten the duration of the illness.
Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata)
Among this medicinal herb’s active compounds, andrographolide is a plant chemical with anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-boosting properties. Studies show that andrographis is an effective supplement for reducing the symptoms of uncomplicated upper respiratory infections. (14)
Better yet, research in the journal Phytomedicine found that andrographis reduced the risk of illness from a winter cold by 33% among a group of students. (21)
This well-known medicinal herb has the ability to turn on the body’s innate and adaptive immune responses. Echinacea can also stimulate the production of antibodies that modulate the immune system’s response to bacteria, viruses, fungi, and allergens. (21)
When you’re sick, echinacea may enhance your non-specific immune response and increase the number of immune cells—especially white blood cells, monocytes, neutrophils, and natural killer cells—to help speed your recovery. (5)(15)
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Black elderberry has been used for centuries to address flu symptoms, as well as the common cold. Research shows that elderberry extract may possess antimicrobial benefits against both the gram-positive bacteria that causes strep throat and the gram-negative bacteria responsible for ear infections, sinusitis, and pneumonia. (6)
More recently, a randomized double-blind trial of airline passengers reported that those taking elderberry had fewer colds and among those who did become sick, the elderberry group had shorter, less severe colds than those taking a placebo. (18) When sick, taking elderberry in combination with antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin C and zinc, can help support the natural process of recuperation. (6)
Since about 70% of the body’s total number of immune cells reside in the gut, taking probiotics can help protect against cold and flu viruses. (19) One clinical trial found that taking a probiotic containing Bifidobacterium bifidum reduced the frequency of colds among a group of college students. (7)
Another study involving preschoolers found that giving them a daily multi-strain probiotic reduced the incidence of colds and flu by as much as 31.8% and reduced the duration of the illness if they did get sick. (8)
Zinc plays a key role in immunity and the body’s ability to combat infections. Studies involving school-going children have found that those taking a proactive dose of zinc were less likely to come down with a cold. (13) This important mineral can also shorten the duration of a cold if taken at the onset of symptoms, and pairing it with vitamin C might enhance zinc’s immune-boosting properties, especially in children. (16)(10)
The bottom line
Practicing healthy habits and supplementing with medicinal herbs and nutrients can enhance immunity before and after getting sick. Taking steps now to protect against these common back-to-school illnesses can help keep your entire family healthy all season long.
- Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology, 463(1), 121–137.
- Centers for Disease Control. (2021). When and how to wash your hands. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html
- Colds in children. (2005). Paediatrics & Child Health, 10(8), 493–495.
- familydoctor.org. (2020). Common school-age illnesses/infections. https://familydoctor.org/common-school-age-illnessesinfections/
- Goel, V., Lovlin, R., Chang, C., Slama, J. V., Barton, R., Gahler, R., Bauer, R., … & Basu, T. K. (2005). A proprietary extract from the echinacea plant (Echinacea purpurea) enhances systemic immune response during a common cold. Phytotherapy Research: PTR, 19(8), 689–694.
- Krawitz, C., Mraheil, M. A., Stein, M., Imirzalioglu, C., Domann, E., Pleschka, S., & Hain, T. (2011). Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 11, 16.
- Langkamp-Henken, B., Rowe, C. C., Ford, A. L., Christman, M. C., Nieves, C., Jr, Khouri, L., Specht, G. J., … & Dahl, W. J. (2015). Bifidobacterium bifidum R0071 results in a greater proportion of healthy days and a lower percentage of academically stressed students reporting a day of cold/flu: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. The British Journal of Nutrition, 113(3), 426–434.
- Leyer, G. J., Li, S., Mubasher, M. E., Reifer, C., & Ouwehand, A. C. (2009). Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics, 124(2), e172–e179.
- Li, S., Arguelles, L., Jiang, F., Chen, W., Jin, X., Yan, C., Tian, Y., … & Shen, X. (2013). Sleep, school performance, and a school-based intervention among school-aged children: A sleep series study in China. PloS One, 8(7), e67928.
- Maggini, S., Wenzlaff, S., & Hornig, D. (2010). Essential role of vitamin C and zinc in child immunity and health. The Journal of International Medical Research, 38(2), 386–414.
- Mathur, P. (2011). Hand hygiene: Back to the basics of infection control. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 134(5), 611–620.
- Neath Port Talbot Council. (n.d.). Boosting your immune system. https://www.npt.gov.uk/media/13280/3-pdf-boosting-your-immune-system.pdf?v=20200409092434
- Rao, G., & Rowland, K. (2011). PURLs: Zinc for the common cold–not if, but when. The Journal of Family Practice, 60(11), 669–671.
- Saxena, R. C., Singh, R., Kumar, P., Yadav, S. C., Negi, M. P. S., Saxena, V. S., Joshua, A. J., … & Amit, A. (2010). A randomized double blind placebo controlled clinical evaluation of extract of Andrographis paniculata (KalmCold) in patients with uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection. Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, 17(3-4), 178–185.
- Schulten, B., Bulitta, M., Ballering-Brühl, B., Köster, U., & Schäfer, M. (2001). Efficacy of Echinacea purpurea in patients with a common cold. A placebo-controlled, randomised, double-blind clinical trial. Arzneimittel-Forschung, 51(7), 563–568.
- Singh, M., & Das, R. R. (2013). Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews , 6, CD001364.
- Suni, E. (2021). How much sleep do we really need? Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need
- Tiralongo, E., Wee, S. S., & Lea, R. A. (2016). Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travellers: A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Nutrients, 8(4), 182.
- Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Di Cara, G., & Frati, F. (2008). Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 153 Suppl 1, 3–6.
- Wein, H. (2009). Understanding a common cold virus. National Institutes of Health. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/understanding-common-cold-virus
- Zhai, Z., Liu, Y., Wu, L., Senchina, D. S., Wurtele, E. S., Murphy, P. A., Kohut, M. L., & Cunnick, J. E. (2007). Enhancement of innate and adaptive immune functions by multiple Echinacea species. Journal of Medicinal Food, 10(3), 423–434.