Three ways to help your child this cold & flu season
As Fall settles in, the weather cools and we spend more and more time indoors, we are inevitably exposed to more and more cold & flu germs. Children especially pass cold & flu viruses like wild fire, and it often seems that half the school may be out sick on any given day due to the latest bug that’s been going around.
Part of this is inevitable, especially with babies, toddlers and preschool aged children. Even with hand washing and other prevention techniques, parents know that their toddlers manage to expose themselves to absolutely everything thanks to their curious natures and drive to learn! (ie dirty hands go into mouths at the blink of an eye!)
Part of this is also expected; children do get sick. Their immune systems are still developing and in fact, it’s a sign of health to catch a cold or flu virus, work through it, and then get better.
I know though, first hand as a parent, how dreaded and stressful cold and flu season can be. Not only do we suffer right alongside our children, but sick kids mean we miss work which can add to the layers of stress – and stress is not good for our own immune systems! Double whammy.
I, like many parents I know, focus as much as I can on keeping my child healthy. While I do expect her to get sick this school year, I also know that as an acupuncturist, I have fantastic tools to help her get better quickly and stay better for longer, so that she’s not coming home every other week with the latest bug.
In Chinese Medicine, we focus on strengthening a child’s defenses in order to better fight off cold & flu viruses. A strong immune system means that a child will be able to recover quickly from a cold or flu virus and will also help reduce their chance of developing a secondary infection (ear infection, bronchial infection etc.). A strong immune system also means that a child will be able to fight off some of the cold & flu viruses without actually really ever getting sick! Their body will be able to fight it off at the time of exposure, before the virus gets nice and comfy and begins to multiply, causing symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, fever and cough.
Tip Number One: Limit Damp, Cold & Phlegm Producing Foods
It’s well known in Chinese medicine that the strength of our immunity is a reflection of the strength of our guts – so what we eat and how well we digest truly matters. Our digestive organs, our Spleens and Stomachs, extract qi from the food we eat and combine it with the qi from the air we breathe. This qi creates the basis of energy the sustains all of our bodily functions. Our defensive qi, known in Chinese Medicine as our wei qi, acts as the first line of defense against pathogens such as viruses and works to “kick” the pathogen out of our bodies as soon as possible. Weak wei qi lets these pathogens inside and lets them take over our system. Strong wei qi, really starts with strong digestion.
So how does one ensure strong digestion?
One of the most important ways I’ve found to ensure strong digestion and strong immunity is to limit the types of foods that cause cold and dampness to build up in the body. The Spleen and Stomach like to be warm. Keeping the digestive fire stoked with warming foods rather than cold foods is important. The Spleen and Stomach also don’t like to be gummed up with foods that create dampness and phlegm. Dampness can be a huge problem for many children. Have you ever noticed a child, either your own or someone else’s, who always seems to have a runny nose? That is a sign of dampness! A child who has a lot of dampness, ie already makes a lot of mucous, is predisposed to having a harder time healing from colds and is more at risk for developing ear infections, bronchial infections or chronic coughs. Children’s bodies have a hard time expelling and transforming all of that extra mucous, and the mucous further hurts their digestive organs which can further interfere with immunity. Dampness can be a vicious cycle!
Foods that cause cold and dampness in the body include:
Pasteurized dairy products (including yogurt)
Sugar (in ALL of its forms including fruit juice)
Processed foods (including crackers, cereal, granola bars - basically on-the-go snack foods)
COLD foods (like frozen and iced drinks, ice cream, popsicles, smoothies)
I personally limit damp causing foods for myself and my child during the cooler months. I also do not give her refrigerated or cold drinks, and instead opt for room temperature water and herbal teas. I also am very, very stingy with sweets and sugar. Like, super stingy. Fresh fruit provides plenty of sweet juicy goodness, in my opinion, and treats are only for the most special of occasions!
Now, if you’re looking at the list of damp producing foods and realizing they make up most of your child’s diet, don’t panic. Changes can be made slowly over time to a more whole food, low sugar diet. However, when your child is SICK, I highly advise limiting their intake of sugar, processed foods and pasteurized dairy. You will see the difference in their phlegm and mucous production!
Tip Number Two: Give Herbs & Supplements at the FIRST Sign of a Cold
My second tip to help strengthen immunity and ward off cold & flu viruses is to take the FIRST sign of cold symptoms very seriously. If you’re able to help boost the immune system right as the virus is starting to take hold, there is a better chance that you will be able to help shorten the duration of the cold or possibly avoid it in its entirety!
In older children who are able to express how their bodies are feeling, the first symptom they notice may be a slightly scratchy throat, a dull headache, feeling more tired than normal, or a slight runny nose. In younger children, the first sign that a child is coming down with a cold may be that they are crankier and throwing big tantrums and/or needing more sleep than usual.
For my toddler daughter, I cue in to her signs. If she seems a little more fragile than usual, and if I know there are colds and flus circulating in her school and play groups, I will give her herbs preventatively.
Something else to look for in younger kids is a hue of blue around their eyes. This will show up on the sides of their temples, on the bridge of their nose, or under their eyes. This blueness is a big diagnostic clue in Chinese medicine, and when I see it in my own kid, I know she is probably not feeling so well!
If you are noticing signs that a cold or flu virus may be trying to take hold – act fast! Use your favorite go-to herbs and supplements, make a big pot of soup, keep your child home from after school activities, and enforce an early bedtime. Some of the herbs and supplements that I like to use to help fight off a cold virus in its beginning stages include:
Vitamin C &Vitamin D Elderberry Astragalus
Chinese herbal formula for wind/cold: Windbreaker by Kan Herbs.
I find the formula Windbreaker by Kan to be VERY helpful in treating early stage cold & flu viruses. It is available online, and I also carry it in my office. I also have made some of my own pediatric cold formulas in glycerin tincture, which are oftentimes more palatable to kids than alcohol tinctures (such as Windbreaker).
And important: if you suspect a cold is on its way, take heed of the advice in Tip number one: have your child avoid damp, cold and phlegm producing foods. Make it soup night instead of pizza night!
Tip number three: Lower Stress Levels for the Whole Family
In Chinese medicine, everything has its season. Summer time when we are warm, active and outdoors is a great time of year to have the whole family be on the go. It’s in line with the seasonal energies to be blossoming, to be out and about, to be trying new things. When Fall brings its first cool winds, and the amount of day light begins to noticeably diminish, it’s time to take a cue from nature and begin to retreat. A slower pace of life in the colder months is healthy. Winter and Fall provide us much needed opportunities to rest and replenish so that we can be on the go again come Spring and Summer. Parents need this rest and replenishment just as much as children do! Unfortunately, in this day and age, many kids are booked in activities from the start of school until bedtime, which leaves little time for relaxation and retreat.
Helping limit the stressors your child is exposed to, whether it be limiting activities and providing more unstructured down time, keeping screen time to strict limits, or encouraging more explorative play outdoors, is very helpful for keeping them strong and healthy during the colder months. Remember: children need ample rest! I also have named this tip “Lower Stress Levels for the Whole Family” for this reason: when Mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy! Keeping your own stress in check will benefit your child!