Good news and bad news if you’re planning a family vacation this winter. The good news: You can prevent your kids from catching colds and ruining your plans. It’s called isolation. Two weeks before your trip lock them in their rooms with all their paraphernalia. No school. No play dates. Enter their rooms infrequently and always wearing surgical masks and sterile gloves.
The bad news: some busybody from child welfare may come knocking on your door.
Here is what you should know.
1. The facts. Young children generally experience six to eight colds a year, more of them in the in winter, and more if they attend daycare-type programs. Isolation prevents colds. Better said, isolation postpones colds. Kids who stay home eventually catch up with the number of colds of kids in preschool and kindergarten. Adults get colds about two to four times a year. At all ages, some colds are so mild that they may go unnoticed.
2. Forget old wives’ tales concerning cold weather. There is no evidence that kids (or adults) catch colds due to wet feet, drafts, being overdressed, lack of sleep or being “run down.” Hot drinks in cold weather give people psychological lifts but insignificantly improve body heat. And “starve a cold, feed a fever” is nonsense. Let sick kids eat or not eat as they wish. They should drink, however.
3 All old wives’ tales may not be old wives’ tales. Winter weather may play some role in causing colds after all. Both cold air outside and heat indoors decrease humidity. In low humidity the droplets containing viruses that emanate from coughs and sneezes of infected individuals remain airborne much longer and travel much further. Also, low humidity dries out nasal membranes, making them more fertile ground for viruses to take hold and multiply. (But yet to be explained is why kids living in humid, tropical climates and spending much time outdoors get colds/flu virtually as often as kids in cold climates.)
4. The immune system is the new whipping post for what ails us. There is no convincing evidence that cold weather suppresses the immune system. Immunity to cold viruses develops only by being infected by a specific virus and the immunity from that virus is limited to that virus. Cold viruses do not “bounce” back and forth within a family. A second round of colds is generally due to a new virus.
5. Kids are especially susceptible to colds. Newborns acquire little protection against cold viruses from their mother. They develop immunity one virus at a time, making them especially susceptible for the first few years of life. Daycare-type programs are ideal for spreading viruses, both through the air and by touching contaminated surfaces. Toddlers cough and sneeze into each other’s faces, lick and touch the same toys, rarely wash their hands, and place their fingers in their noses and mouths. And cold-infected children (and adults) begin shedding viruses days before showing symptoms of being ill.
6. There is no known way to boost normal immune systems. There are hundreds of substances that claim to do so but none has been scientifically shown to be effective, though many of these products have not been studied. Especially for children, some “immune boosters” may have side effects. Giving vitamins to children makes parents feel better, but does not make kids more resistant to colds.
7. All immune systems are not created equal. Likely all kids get about the same number of colds but some kids are more symptomatic than others. One child is bedridden with fever for several days while another child with the same cold virus coughs once or twice and has a bit of a runny nose for an hour or two and no one notices. These differences are poorly understood and are areas of intense research.
8. Some cold-like symptoms in cold weather are not necessarily signs of a cold. Children playing outdoors for prolonged periods in cold weather get runny noses. One function of the nose is to warm and humidify the dry air being inhaled. It does so by secreting moisture. Some of this moisture reaches the cold tip of the nose and condenses into a watery discharge. Also, if cold air does reach the lungs, it causes a cough-like reaction.
9. Flu (influenza) vaccine prevents only the flu. It offers no protection against other cold viruses. There are as yet no vaccines against cold viruses. Likely, there will be in the future. Flu is a specific cold-like disease with frequent complications, often pneumonia, especially for young children and the elderly. Almost as many children require hospitalization as the elderly from the flu.
10. Winter travel increases the chances of catching colds/flu. Visits to out-of-town relatives, skiing holidays, cruises, and air travel, for example, often place your kids in close contact with people from different localities near and far who carry different viruses. In flu/cold season there is a fair chance that someone in the crowd is already infected. Frequent hand washing and avoiding people who are coughing and sneezing may help somewhat in avoiding flu/colds, but flu vaccine is the most effective way to avoid the flu.