With summer winding down, students are heading back to school. That means reading, writing—and runny noses.
“Kids who are healthy all summer long come back to the classroom and, boom, they get sick,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
According to Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, vaccines represent a powerful first line of defense against a variety of serious communicable illnesses. “Immunizations ensure that children don’t get polio, measles, diphtheria and many other infectious diseases that were once common,” he said. “Those illnesses are still out there, and when children don’t get vaccinated, they’re at risk for those conditions.”
In addition to scheduled immunizations, OMRF physician-scientist Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., recommends that children also receive a seasonal flu vaccination. “The strain of influenza that causes seasonal outbreaks is always changing,” said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF. “So the body needs new vaccines to prepare its immune system for these new invaders.”
Vaccines are not always effective, said James. “They don’t work for everybody, and that’s part of what I research at OMRF. Still, they are the best way we know to prevent several deadly illnesses.”
Getting a good night’s sleep is also key to maintaining a healthy immune system.
“Parents might be OK on 6 or 7 hours a night, but kids require more,” Prescott said. Getting too little sleep interrupts the activity of the body’s killer cells, which play a central role in fighting germs and other pathogens.
In addition, said Prescott, “Sleep helps students thrive, because that’s when a good chunk of learning and memory are imprinted in the brain.” Studies have shown that people who slept after learning a task did better when tested later.
After a good night’s sleep, kids need fuel to get them going for another day. Try to find breakfasts that are high in protein and fiber, Prescott said.
“Protein, which is found in meat, eggs and beans, is integral to a child’s growth and it’s a major component of the antibodies in the immune system that are keeping us healthy,” he said. “Fiber is complex and takes a while to digest, which keeps kids from feeling too hungry before lunchtime.”
And before they get to the cafeteria, make sure they know to wash their hands.
“That is probably the most important thing children and adults can do to stay healthy,” Prescott said. “Throughout the day, whenever you touch people, surfaces and objects, you’re getting germs on your hands. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth, those germs enter your system.”
Germ-free hands are impossible, but by keeping them clean before meals and after every trip to the bathroom, you can drastically reduce the chances of catching whatever illness is going around.
But students who do get sick should not go to school.
“Taking off work to stay with a sick child isn’t always easy, but doing so keeps other students from coming down with the same illness,” he said. “Keeping one student home might be the break in the chain that keeps him from getting the same cold after it’s gone through another dozen kids.”