For children, winter means two things: school and infections. Don't let one get in the way of the other

Back to school, and as you waved your happy, rested and healthy-looking children off on the first day of term, you may well have wondered how you could make this summer vitality last through to the bleak days of February.

Back to school, and as you waved your happy, rested and healthy-looking children off on the first day of term, you may well have wondered how you could make this summer vitality last through to the bleak days of February.

The truth is that kids get sick while they are battling the countless viruses, bacteria, fungi, microbes and other bugs with which we share our daily lives. Sometimes it seems as if the winter months are one long slog against every cough and cold going. Some children seem to be more resistant to infections than others, but it's common for school-aged children to have four or more colds a year, lasting between five and 14 days. Repeated infections tend to make a child more vulnerable to further infections, as their immune system becomes depleted. So it's well worth taking steps to help avoid this cycle of illness by boosting your child's immune system.


"Five a day" is the Government recommendation for fruit and vegetables, and with good reason when it comes to boosting immunity. Fruit and vegetables contain the regular supply of vitamins needed, for example C and B, which are water-soluble, can't be stored in the body and need replenishing every day. Opt for organic if you want, but more important perhaps is to go for variety and seasonally produced, local vegetables that are fresh and have retained a higher nutritional value.

Avoid highly processed foods as many contain hydrogenated fats which take energy to disperse, sugars that deplete the body's vitamin levels and are empty calories, providing little nutrition. Soft and carbonated drinks, especially colas, are very high in sugars and phosphates, which leach other beneficial nutrients like vitamin B, calcium and magnesium, from the body, sapping the immune system. And when encouraging children to eat, go for the three S's: eat slowly, sociably and sitting down.


If you are going to give your child nutritional supplements, choose these with care. For example, check there is no aspartame in that multi-vitamin and mineral you've chosen. The Kangavite range from Solgar ( is good, while Sambucol, made from the immunity-boosting black elderberry plant is useful if illness strikes, as is Echinacea, the efficacy of which is boosted if taken in combination with Goldenseal, which has a role to play in boosting immunity when a child is sick. If antibiotics are necessary, give your child a probiotic to help boost the good bacteria in the gut that can become depleted while on a course. Biocare do a good range, including a probiotic powder for babies (


Regular exercise - even if it's just walking to school and back - helps boost immunity, simply because exercise disperses stress hormones that can inhibit the activity of the thymus gland - key to the immune system in children. Exercise also boosts feel-good hormones in the brain, and exposure to daylight stimulates the pineal gland and can reduce an inclination towards winter depression. It stimulates the lymphatic system which, unlike blood circulation, has no pump but relies on the muscular action of the body to ensure that it circulates smoothly. While a child's immune system is developing, the lymphatic system is much more active, dealing with infections.

R and R

One of the biggest drains on a child's immune system is stress. Stress produces an excess of "fight or flight" hormones that sap the body's ability to deal with other demands, and research from the Mental Health Foundation showed that as many as one in five children had mental health problems of some sort, and 10 per cent of these were anxiety disorders. Children as young as six now have homework demands on top of their long school day and after-school activities, leaving little time to rest and unwind. If your child is struggling with chronic infections during winter, think about reducing the demands made on them and cutting down on some activities, allowing more time for rest. Chronic inability to get up in the morning, regular headaches, and tummy upsets are all indicators of an overloaded schedule.

Hand washing

The hands provide a wonderfully warm, moist environment for germs to breed and be exchanged - but just washing them a minimum of five times a day, in warm soapy water, is enough to reduce transmission of many common germs by 70 per cent. Encourage your child to wash their hands regularly, especially before meals and after using the lavatory.


Many children are chronically sleep-deprived, and yet it's during sleep that the body's reduced metabolic rate allows other activities, like the renewal of body cells and secretion of growth hormones, to be fully active. Sleep is especially important during periods of growth and illness. Encouraging good sleep habits in children will stand them in good stead for later life, too.

Nit picking: How to beat a tougher kind of head lice

For many parents, back to school means back to itchy heads and regular de-lousing sessions. And head lice aren't fussy - they like any sort of hair, straight, curly, long, short, clean or dirty. Recent research showed that three quarters of parents deal regularly with head lice, with half of those catching them too! "Lice have been increasing steadily in most communities in the UK for the past 10 to 15 years," says Ian Burgess, director of the Entomology Centre in Cambridge. "Current products are not working as well as they should, partly through lice being resistant."

In addition, many parents are ambivalent about treating their children's hair with increasingly potent chemicals, which is why new, natural products containing Neem oil are being welcomed. Neem oil has been used as a traditional insecticide in the East for thousands of years. The oil is applied to washed hair, combed through and left on, as soon as there's any evidence of lice or nits. Regular, once-weekly checking is advocated since the first head lice take up residence before any itching heralds their arrival.