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snug as a bug

Winter bugs and germs are inevitable - so is it time I just stopped worrying?

Sending kids to playschool is like dipping them in a giant Petri dish, writes Ciara McDonnell.

THERE IS A REALLY horrible period that every family experiences when their child starts going to creche firstly, then to playschool and big school. I imagine it like dipping the kids into a Petri dish of germs and waiting to see which ones will catch on.

Before Matthew, my eldest, started playschool, he spent the first three years of his life in my Domestos-led house, playing with a limited amount of children. As a result he was violently sick for his first year in the great outdoors.

Matthew was that kid – you know the one – with the permanent crust of snot and a rattling, phlegmy cough that roared, “Stay away from me, I am a mobile germ-fest.”

Bugs and viruses seem to arrive non-stop in our children’s early years, so what are we to do? Is there a magical elixir that will boost their tiny immune systems so they’ll avoid catching norovirus this year? There’s not, says Dr Mark Rowe of Waterford Health Park Primary Care Centre – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

shutterstock_619077191 Shutterstock / DeeMPhotography Shutterstock / DeeMPhotography / DeeMPhotography

Bugs can be beneficial

“The truth is, children have to be exposed to these things so that they can develop a stronger immune system when they are older,” Dr Rowe explains.

The average child is going to pick up fifty or sixty bugs between the time that they are born and the time they go to school.

Viruses cause a lot of these bugs, meaning they don’t require antibiotics, he adds. “What we now know is that treating viral infections with antibiotics doesn’t work, and you may be risking exposing your child to antibiotic-related side effects like diarrhoea.”

Antibiotics may not always be the answer, but there’s still plenty you can do to ensure your children stay as healthy as possible, says Dr Rowe. First up? Ensuring they live in a smoke-free environment:

It’s great that the smoking rates in Ireland have come down, but passive smoking is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children.

By keeping your kids away from sidestream or passive smoking – particularly children with asthma – you’re reducing their risk of ear infections, chest infections and more.

shutterstock_321961805 Shutterstock / Tomsickova Tatyana Shutterstock / Tomsickova Tatyana / Tomsickova Tatyana

Boosting tiny immune systems

The food we eat plays a major part in maintaining gut health, so a sensible family diet can work wonders on our immune system. “The microbiome is a collection of up to fifty trillion bugs that live in our body, particularly in our gut,” Dr Rowe explains. ”These bugs have been shown to have a huge effect on our ability to maintain a healthy immune system and to absorb minerals.”

So should we be loading up on probiotic supplements to boost our gut bacteria? Absolutely not, says Dr Rowe. “At a very fundamental level it’s about eating as food that is good for us, so as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible. I advise people to eat a rainbow of colours every day.”

Let food be thy medicine

As for probiotics, they’re massively important, but where possible, include them in your diet before reaching for a supplement. “Foods like Greek yoghurt and fermented products are a fantastic support to the body,” Dr Rowe explains.

I believe you are better off getting all your nutrients from your diet. As the saying goes, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’. Let kids eat as much colour, whole grains and real food as possible, and they shouldn’t need to be taking supplements.

One final thing you can do, according to the GP? Ensure your kids get enough physical activity. “Don’t forget that exercise is essential to our wellbeing, and children need an hour of exercise a day and a good night’s sleep to stay healthy and happy.”

shutterstock_289118135 Shutterstock / Olesia Bilkei Shutterstock / Olesia Bilkei / Olesia Bilkei

When illness strikes

Of course, it’s all well and good eating your five a day and watching your six year old slurp down a glass of kefir at breakfast (lucky you!) in order to maintain gut health, but what should we do when illness inevitably strikes?

Be sensible and trust yourself, and be mindful of the “rare but serious things” that can happen any child that gets a virus, says Dr Rowe:

If a child is in pain looking at light, develops a rash, has a very high fever that cannot be controlled or has difficulty breathing, it is essential to visit the doctor.

Above all else, says the GP, utilise your health team – and your own instincts – in times of illness.

“Knowledge is power, so keep aware of what is going on in the community in terms of viruses, but remember that parents always know best,” he says. ”If you’re not happy, tell the doctor. If you want a second opinion, insist on one. Your doctor is there to help and support you, but trust your own gut instinct too.”

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More: Why I’m stopping at two kids (even though my ovaries are crying out for more)

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