7 Steps to Boost Your Child's Immunity

The best offense is a good defense. It's a saying that holds as true for football as it does for cold and flu season. But fending off colds doesn't just mean reminding your kids to wash their hands."How much you sleep, what you eat and how you spend your free time all play a role in having a strong immune system," says Dr. Alan Greene, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending pediatrician at Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow this eight-step plan to keep your little ones -- and you -- healthy, happy and sniffle-free.

Scale back on sweets.
According to the American Heart Association, the average American gets about 22 teaspoons of added sugar in one day -- more than three times the amount the organization recommends. Not only can an excess of the sweet stuff pave the way for weight gain, but it can also wear down the immune system."Refined sugar causes blood sugar spikes, which compromise white blood cells, the body's first line of defense against colds," says Greene. To scale back, swap out your kid's soda for water and offer fruit instead of candy. The American Heart Association advises that children ages 4 to 8 who get about 1,600 calories a day should limit their sugar intake to 3 teaspoons -- or 12 grams -- a day.

Clear the air.
Here's another reason to protect your child from secondhand smoke and chemical-based household cleaners:"These pollutants damage cilia, the tiny hairs in your nose that help block viruses," says Greene. Declare your home and car smoke-free zones, and use gentler cleaners -- or save the serious scrubbing for the times your kid's in day care or on a playdate.

Let 'em laugh.
When life gets hectic, it's sometimes simpler to rush through your day without cracking a smile. But taking time to have fun and giggle with your family is crucial for your well-being. In fact, research from Japan's Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine found that watching funny movies boosts the production of the body's natural cold- and flu-killing cells. Try having a tickle-fest, or pop in a chuckle-worthy DVD.

Serve some bacteria.
The good kind, that is! “Probiotics strengthen the immune system," says Greene."The trick is giving your child enough of these friendly bacteria." He recommends looking for a product with 5 to 10 billion units from more than one strain of probiotics, such as a combination of lactobacillus and bifidus regularis. Most yogurts contain 1 billion units per serving, so consider stocking up on fortified juices too.

Stress less.
Too much tension can trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that dampens your body's defenses, says Greene. Of course, it's impossible to rid your child's life of all stresses, but teaching him coping techniques can help him better deal with them. The next time he seems anxious, have him lie down with one hand on his tummy. Ask him to take deep breath; his stomach should push against his hand when he inhales and move away when he exhales. Eventually, he'll learn to take these "belly breaths" when he's feeling frustrated.

Get moving.
Freezing outside? Resist the temptation to camp out in front of the television. Staying active provides a number of healthy benefits, including a stronger immune system. According to a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people who worked out five days a week came down with 46-percent fewer colds than their couch-potato counterparts. So bundle up and go on a family walk or create an indoor obstacle course.

Have a set bedtime.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who logged more quality shut-eye were five times less likely to get a cold than those who tended to toss and turn. Experts recommend that children younger than 12 should log 10 hours of sleep a night, one- to three-year-olds should get 12 to 14 hours, and those younger than 1 need 14 to 15 hours. To help put your little one -- and colds -- to bed, create an evening ritual that signals it's time for sleep, like reading a favorite book or doing a few easy stretches.

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5 Immune-boosting Recipes

Cold and flu season is here, which means that your family is fending off viruses right and left. But the one thing that your kids do as nearly as often as encounter germs is eat. And, lucky for you, each meal is a new opportunity to build up their defenses with foods that promote a strong, healthy immune system. Here, we've put together a day's worth of easy, delicious meals and snacks packed with cold- and flu-fighting nutrients.

Breakfast: Honey-nut Oatmeal
Stick-to-your-ribs oats are loaded with soluble fiber, which does more than fill you up: A 2010 study from the University of Illinois shows it also assists in turning on immune cells that help the body fight infection. Top that bowl of steel-cut, rolled or instant oatmeal (they all pack roughly the same nutritional value) with raw almonds -- chemicals in their skin prevent viruses from spreading in the body, say Italian scientists. To sweeten the deal for your kids, drizzle it with antibacterial honey and add a dash of antioxidant-packed cinnamon. Serves 1.

  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • Water
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • Cinnamon to taste

Prepare oats with water to desired consistency. Chop almonds and sprinkle on top of oatmeal. Add honey and cinnamon.

Lunch: Sun-sadillas
Instead of a PB&J, try an SB&J using sunflower butter, which contains twice as much of the immune-boosting mineral zinc and more heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Smooshed between whole-wheat tortillas and served with vitamin C-rich fruit salsa, these kid-friendly finger sandwiches take minutes to whip up. (Just remind your kids to wash first, since they'll be eating with their hands.) Serves 1.

  • 2 small whole-wheat tortillas
  • 1 tablespoon sunflower butter
  • 1/2 kiwi
  • 1/2 pear
  • 2 strawberries

Spread one tortilla with sunflower butter. Top with second tortilla and cut into triangles. Dice kiwi, pear and strawberries and toss together and plate with the sandwiches.

Snack: Berry Healthy Smoothie
Research shows the probiotic bacteria in yogurt can help increase your body's number of white blood cells, which fight infection. For a one-two cold-fighting punch, make your smoothie with nutrient-rich fruit. Serves 2.

  • 1 cup low fat plain yogurt
  • 3/4 cup frozen strawberries
  • 1 banana
  • Low fat milk or orange juice

Blend the first three ingredients together. Add milk or orange juice until the desired consistency is reached.

Dinner: Superhero Stromboli
This crowd-pleasing supper turns pizza inside out, leaving lots of room for antioxidant-packed veggies. The cold-busting stars of the show: garlic (rich in the cold-fighting compound allicin) and mushrooms (which help the body fend off invaders, reports a study in the journal BMC Immunology). Serve with vitamin C-rich tomato sauce for dipping. Serves approximately 4.

  • Store-bought whole-wheat pizza dough
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 cups button mushrooms
  • 3 cups baby spinach
  • Olive oil
  • 1/2 cup shredded low-fat mozzarella
  • 2 cups tomato sauce

Crush garlic and dice mushrooms. Sautee both ingredients together in a drizzle of olive oil until browned. Add spinach and toss until wilted; set aside. Roll out pizza dough lengthwise until it forms a thin rectangle. Spread vegetable mixture in middle and sprinkle with cheese. Fold over edges of the dough until veggies and cheese are covered entirely; press down edges to seal. Brush lightly with olive oil and bake at 400 F for 30 minutes, or until dough is golden brown. Slice and serve with warmed tomato sauce for dipping.

Dessert: Superfruit Skewers
Your kids can help make these immunity-boosting kebabs, which are an art project and dessert rolled in one. Challenge your family to see who can get the most colors on their stick -- the more hues, the greater the disease-fighting antioxidant quotient. Serves 4.

  • 1 kiwi, sliced
  • 1 mango, cubed
  • 1 banana, sliced
  • 1/2 cup red grapes
  • 1 orange, sliced and halved
  • 4 wooden skewers

Spear each fruit one by one, alternating until all are used. Start over again. Create a pattern with your favorites. Feel free to add any other fruit your family enjoys; all contain important antioxidants to keep your immune systems running strong!

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Important Facts About Pregnancy and the Flu

Preparing for a new baby is an exciting time, but as any expectant mom will tell you, it can also be stressful. And the news that the swine flu is striking pregnant women harder than other people doesn't help. So whether you just found out you're pregnant or are about to deliver, arm yourself with these facts to protect yourself and your growing baby from illness this winter.

Flu Fact No. 1: Pregnant women are more at risk for seasonal flu.
“There are complicated changes that occur in a woman's body to allow her to carry around a fetus and not reject it," says Dr. Nancy Cossler, an ob-gyn at Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "One change is that there is a tamping down of your immune system, which means you're more at risk for many illnesses, including the flu."

Flu Fact No. 2: Getting the flu shot is the most effective way to reduce your flu risk.
Pregnant women should get the seasonal flu vaccine. It's safe to get it at any point during your pregnancy. Just be sure you get the injected version, which is made with killed flu virus. The other type of vaccine, the nasal spray, is not approved for pregnant women because it is made with a live, weakened flu virus.

If, however, you got the nasal spray before you realized you were pregnant, you likely won't experience any problems. Nevertheless, tell your doctor about it.

In addition, although there is no evidence that thimerosal, a mercury preservative in vaccines, causes any harm to pregnant women or a fetus, there are some thimerosal-free vaccines available, if that's what you desire. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that pregnant women get vaccinated with either the regular or thimerosal-free vaccines.

Flu Fact No. 3: The flu shot also protects your growing baby.
When you get vaccinated, your body actually passes the vaccine's protective antibodies on to your developing fetus, which can boost your newborn's immunity during the first six months of life.

“Good studies show that pregnant women who get vaccinated against the seasonal flu give birth to babies who are less likely to get sick themselves," says Cossler. Another way to stretch out a vaccine's protective benefits: breastfeed. When you do, you'll continue to pass the antibodies you received from the vaccine on to your baby.

Flu Fact No. 4: Mitigating the spread of germs reduces your flu risk.
Do all you can to stop the spread of germs. When it comes to your hands: wash, wash and wash again -- as soon as you come home, before you eat, after running errands. It's a universal precaution that can prevent illness, says Cossler. If soap and water aren't handy, keep an alcohol-based sanitizer with you. Avoid people who are sick and try to touch fewer surfaces, such as door handles, elevator buttons and even your own nose. 

Flu Fact No. 5: Don't ignore any flu-like symptoms.
The most common flu indicators are fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue and sometimes diarrhea or vomiting. If you have some or all of these, stay home, drink plenty of water and call your doctor right away. You may be given an antiviral medicine that safely treats the flu in pregnant women and can be taken at any time during pregnancy.

The bottom line is this: It's important to know that the flu isn't spread through the air you breathe, but by respiratory droplets that you touch and then spread to yourself by rubbing your eyes or nose. If you and everyone in your family take precautions and get vaccinated, you can avoid the flu this season. And that's good for you and your baby.

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Seasonal Flu Fundamentals

To keep your family healthy and safe this flu season, it's important to know all you can about the flu. Here are seasonal flu fundamentals on everything from symptoms to prevention.

Who's at Risk: Young children and people over 65 are most likely to contract the virus.

Symptoms: The flu virus usually triggers fever, cough, runny nose or congestion, and body aches.

Red-flag Warnings
Most people with seasonal flu get a mild illness that might make them feel miserable for a few days but isn't life-threatening. But it's important to watch for red-flag warning signs that suggest a person is developing severe complications.

In children, look for fast breathing or breathing difficulty. Also, act fast if skin appears bluish or the child has a fever with a rash. Failure to wake up or interact, and extreme irritability are also warning signs. In addition, symptoms that improve but then return with fever and a worse cough need immediate attention.

In adults, red flags include breathing difficulty, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, or severe or persistent vomiting.

The flu virus is transmitted through tiny amounts of mucus released when you talk, sneeze or cough, explains Dr. Robert W. Frenck Jr., professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. You can prevent the spread of both flu viruses by developing these healthy habits:

  • Wash your hands. Several times a day, wash your hands with soap and water, especially before eating. If you don't have sink access, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your cough. If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth with a tissue and then throw the tissue away. If you don't have a tissue handy, cough into your elbow.
  • Stay home. If you get sick, plan on staying home for four days, or until the fever has been gone for 24 hours without the aid of fever-reducing medication.
  • Get vaccinated. "Vaccination is the best way to prevent seasonal flu," says Dr. Davis. To find flu vaccination clinics near you, contact your local or state health department.

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3 Common Cold and Flu Myths

Mothers usually know best. But your mom may have led you astray with a few pieces of her sick-day advice. Parents often ask my opinion about a piece of cold and flu info they've heard and practiced for years. But in reality, science proves that some longstanding beliefs simply aren't true. Here are three myths that I hear often in my practice … and the truth behind each one. Read on; you just might be surprised at the truth behind cold and flu myths!

Cold and Flu Myth No. 1: Cold weather can make you sick.
The truth: Going outside in chilly weather without a jacket or with a head of wet hair isn't likely to cause the sniffles. In one study published by the journal Family Practice, people were exposed to the cold virus and asked to stand in rooms of varying temperatures; all groups had virtually the same rate of infection, no matter if they were freezing or toasty.

The fact that colds and the flu are more common in winter is likely because we tend to spend more time indoors when it's cold outside, which increases our chances of coming into contact with sniffling people or contaminated surfaces. Protect yourself and others by always covering your sneezes with an elbow or a tissue and making sure to frequently wash your hands.

Cold and Flu Myth No. 2: Milk can increase mucus production.
The truth: If you're not lactose intolerant, you can drink milk and eat yogurt when you're under the weather. An Australian study, which required 60 volunteers to consume varying amounts of dairy when they were sick with a cold, found no significant connection between milk intake and phlegm production.

Cold and Flu Myth No. 3: Green mucus is a sign of a sinus infection.
The truth: The color of your child's mucus doesn't necessarily mean that he needs antibiotics: Green or yellow mucus just means that that phlegm has been lingering in the nose longer, which can occur with viral infections like a cold. But if the mucus is a color other than greenish-yellow or continues for more than 10 days, it's time to see the doctor.

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