Children’s Immune System Support
Proactive Tips for Flu Season
by Karen English
Each year, from November through March, influenza causes illness in thousands of people across the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2017-2018 season was a high severity season, with a total of 181 pediatric deaths associated with the flu.
Influenza is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. The symptoms of the flu include fever and chills, watery nasal discharge, sore throat, muscle aches, tiredness and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea. People may have any or all of these symptoms. Unfortunately, influenza can lead to severe illness and even death in some people. People who are especially vulnerable to severe illness include those over the age of 65, those with chronic medical problems such as asthma or heart disease and young children under age 5.
Aside from the seasonal influenza vaccine, many things can be done to help prevent and treat the flu. Washing hands with soap and water is best. The flu virus spreads efficiently through the air, but also spreads by picking up the virus from surfaces contaminated by infected persons.
According to the Journal of Infectious Disease, the virus can live for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces such as stainless steel and plastic, and can survive on hands that touched that surface for up to five minutes. Regularly clean surfaces such as door knobs, children’s play areas and toys. Children should be taught not to touch their eyes, nose or mouth as much as possible.
The flu virus does not live as long on soft surfaces such as tissues. Cover the nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing, throw the tissue away and wash hands. Infants are most likely to contract flu from adult caregivers, so good hand-washing and use of tissues are useful, preventive tactics.
Good nutrition is important overall, and a healthy diet rich in phytonutrients can keep immune systems functioning at an optimal level. Vitamins A, C, E, B-6, folic acid, as well as zinc, iron, selenium and copper are important for proper immune function. Probiotics may optimize local immune system activity. Probiotics are especially useful if antibiotics are prescribed for bacterial infections that might be subsequent to the flu. Look for S. boulardii and Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains.
Several botanical preparations have been useful for symptomatic treatment of flu and flu-like illnesses. Growing evidence indicates that elderberry treats the flu. A recent study in the Journal of International Medical Research showed that elderberry extract taken within 48 hours of flu symptom onset and continued for five days improved flu symptoms in adult patients.
Another study from Pediatrics in Review showed symptom improvement in patients with flu symptoms after just two days, when elderberry extract was taken within 24 hours of symptom onset. Black elderberry (sambucus nigra) can be taken orally to prevent flu as well as to treat it.
Other natural treatments for symptoms include saline nasal irrigation, humidifiers and warm fluids. In the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, buckwheat honey was shown in a study to improve nighttime cough and sleep problems better than the common cough medicine ingredient dextromethorphan. However, honey should never be given to children under the age of 1.
A warm tea made with thyme is effective in treating cough. Steep fresh thyme in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes, add lemon juice and honey and give 1 to 2 teaspoons every two to three hours. Slippery elm lozenges are excellent for sore throat and are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Seek advice from a medical professional if a child is sick during flu season, particularly if a child is having severe symptoms such as fast breathing, trouble breathing, decreased urination, extreme irritability or extreme listlessness. Also get medical help right away if a child has had flu-like symptoms that got better but then returned, especially with worsening cough or recurrent fever because this may indicate a secondary infection, such as pneumonia.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; some of these strategies may prevent children from suffering from the flu this season.
Karen English is a board-certified pediatrician with a fellowship in integrative medicine. Her practice, Austin Integrative Pediatrics, is located at 904 West Ave., # 109, in Austin. For more information, call 512-661-9475, email AustinIntegrativePediatrics@gmail.com or visit AustinIntegrativePediatrics.com.