How to keep your family healthy this autumn
Words: Miranda Levy
It’s nearly upon us – autumn. Whatever age you are, it brings with it that back to school feeling of pristine shoes, a new coat and pencil case. But it also means a big welcome back to a number of nasty bugs including colds, coughs and gastrointestinal infections. ‘An adult may catch two to three colds on average, but a young child can expect an average of six per year,’ says GP Fiona Macleod. ‘The reasons for the rise in viral infections in winter are not entirely clear, but may relate to the change in temperature, light and being inside in less well-ventilated rooms.’
The naturopath’s advice:
‘While the summer holidays can be healthy in many ways, some discover that their dining habits can slip,’ says family naturopath Lucinda Miller. ‘For example, eating ice cream or white burger buns at barbecues equates to a significant increase in sugar intake. Consuming just 12g of sugar a day reduces white blood cells – the substances that fight infection – by up to 50%.
‘Back to school, and work, in September can mean rushed breakfasts, unfinished lunches and biscuits at 3.30pm, which is why attention to diet is important. Cooking from scratch (even at breakfast and snack times) and avoiding shop-bought convenience foods is the most important step a family can take to be healthier.
‘Choosing the right foods can go a long way to improving your and your child’s health when they go back to school. Vitamin C is essential for your child’s immune system: feed your little one oranges, red peppers, raspberries and blueberries. Parsley is a wonderful source of vitamin C, which can be sneaked into pesto and fish cakes.
‘For everyone, I also recommend honey: not the supermarket version, which is laden with sugar, but manuka or jarrah honey, which tastes of toffee. Honey is the only intervention recommended by the NHS for childhood cough for children over 12 months. Manuka and jarrah honeys both contain more antioxidants and antimicrobials than normal honey and this helps to combat infections more easily. Serve on toast, or drizzled on porridge.
‘Live Greek yoghurt is also great for building immunity as kids head back to school. I recommend kefir, a yoghurty, fizzy drink which can be found in many stores. And elderberry is a natural antiviral which helps treat flu, colds and gastric bugs.
‘Finally, for fussy kids who don’t like drinking water, cooled herbal teas like fennel or liquorice are a good option instead of sugary squash – or you can add a splash of freshly squeezed fruit juice (citrus fruits work well) to water, or infuse with berries, a cucumber slice or mint.’
The paediatrician’s advice
‘It’s normal for your child to pick up several viruses and minor infections during the school year,’ says paediatrician Dr Yannis Ioannou. ‘Young children can spread and pick up illnesses easily when they head back to school, as they tend to play together in groups and have immature immune systems.
‘Though most viral infections will get better by themselves, there are things we can do to help prevent them in the first place. Thorough hand washing with soap and warm water is important to limit the spread of infection: everyone should wash their hands after using the loo and before eating. It can be difficult to get kids to wash properly, and guidance on duration and technique is likely to fall flat. The best advice is wetting hands first, using soap and drying well afterwards. A hand sanitiser can also be effective. There is also a saying: “catch it, bin it, kill it”. A tissue should only be used once, and thrown away immediately afterwards.
‘Supplements have recognised health benefits: all children up to the age of five should take a multivitamin that includes vitamin D, and there’s no harm in continuing this further. The official NHS advice is that everyone, not just kids, should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10µg of vitamin D during the autumn and winter.
‘If someone gets ill, the best treatment is to offer support at home. Make sure they are drinking small, frequent sips of fluid and getting enough rest. Give child-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen to help to relieve pain, discomfort or fever. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, but if your child is not improving, you should see a doctor. However, the most important thing of all is to offer TLC.
‘It can be difficult to know whether your or your child’s illness warrants a day off school. But if they have coronavirus symptoms (a high temperature, a new or continuous cough, or a loss or change of smell or taste), they should stay at home, get a test done as soon as possible and the whole household, or support bubble, should also stay in until they get their test result.
‘Even if your child doesn’t have coronavirus, if they have a fever – a temperature above 37.5°C – they should stay home from school. In babies less than three months old, a temperature above 38°C could be a sign of something more serious, such as a urinary tract infection or chest infection, and so should always be checked by a doctor. In older children, the height of the fever doesn’t always correlate with severity of illness or differentiate between bacterial or viral infections. Even with a normal temperature, if your baby or child has symptoms that you are concerned about, such as fast or laboured breathing, drowsiness, a rash, cool hands and feet, reduced feeding and drier nappies or not passing urine, it is very important to see a doctor.
‘The NHS now offers a flu vaccine for children from the age of two to eight, which is recommended nationally. This is done with a nasal spray, not an injection. It’s also important to make sure your child’s vaccinations are up to date before they head back to school.’