Colds and flu

01 June 2016

Parents are most at risk for colds and flu

Its cold and flu season and you may not realise it but parents of children under the age of 12 are most at risk of falling ill. Here's why...

As South Africa braces itself for another onslaught of cold and flu infections this winter season, the biggest risk factor for catching the common cold is having children under the age 12. 

So says leading colds and flu generic medicine provider, Pharma Dynamics. 

According to Mariska van Aswegen, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, parents fall ill almost twice as much as anyone else. 

“Young children are a reservoir of germs and if they’re at crèche, school or any place else where they are around other children, they’re in a super-virus environment, which makes them the perfect vectors for illness and for passing viruses around. Kids hug, touch and cough all over each other. They chew on toys and as a result share their saliva, and then parents hug, kiss and cuddle them. It’s no wonder that the average parent catches a cold more compared to those without children,” she says.

A recent study conducted by the University of Utah’s School of Medicine confirms this notion. They found that families with two, three or four children have some type of virus present in their household just under 60% of the time, whereas childless households were only infected with viruses three to four weeks of the year. 

Each additional child in a household increased a family member’s risk of falling ill. Households with one child tested positive about 18 weeks of the year, while families with more than four children tested positive about 45 weeks of the year – that’s a whopping 87% of the time.

Van Aswegen adds that parents who live with small children are 1.5 times more likely to be sick since children under the age of five tend to have at least one virus present in their mucus 50% of the time. 

“As we enter another cold and flu season it is imperative that those at risk, especially parents of younger children, give their immune systems a boost, whilst adequately protecting themselves from sources of cross-infection. But for a parent with little ones, it’s difficult to take care of yourself when you’re ill, since you have to take care of everyone else. This makes the recovery process so much harder (and unpleasant). 

“I often get asked whether there is any sense in trying to stop the spread of infection by wearing a mask for example, but the best and most practical way of protecting yourself (and your family), is to practise proper handwashing techniques and to do so often. This could reduce the chances of catching your child’s cold by 30 to 50%. Another way is to stay out of waiting rooms in doctor’s offices, emergency rooms and the shops, and to avoid public transport as much as possible. Also use your judgement about your own situation. If you are pregnant and have had several bouts of flu or have a newborn, you may actually want to wear a mask.

“Besides eating your greens, getting enough sleep is another critical factor in fighting off colds and flu. Research tells us that people who sleep six hours or less a night are four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to a virus, compared to those who get in more than seven hours a night. Most parents probably don’t get enough Zs, but it’s vital to our wellbeing, so try to carefully plan your day to ensure enough time is spent in slumber land,” she advises. 

Van Aswegen says keeping a clean and dust-free house is equally important. “It might also be worth getting an air filter to clean and purify the air in your home, especially if you’ve experienced wave after wave of illness in your household. 

“In truth, there is no cure for the common cold or flu, but time-deprived parents may benefit from supplements that can boost their immune system. Look for one’s that contain Vitamin C, zinc and Echinacea, which when used in combination are excellent at combating colds and flu, such as Efferflu C Immune Booster. 

She says that if you do catch your child’s cold, there is an upside to all of this shared illness business. 

“Once a child starts to develop a functioning immune system, at about six months, then the exposure to general viruses and germs isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it helps build and stimulate the immune system. It’s important to remember that a child’s immune system will only be fully developed between 12 to 14 years of age, when they finally reach adult levels of antibody formation, so you may be in for a tough few years, but as the children grow up it will help them fight other infections and stay healthier in the long-run,” concludes van Aswegen.

Here is an illustration of how each additional child in a household increased the risk of falling ill, based on the Utah Better Identification of Germs-Longitudinal Viral Epidemiology, led by scientists at the University of Utah School of Medicine (August 2015):

Read more:

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Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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