Boosting immune health. Can ‘back to school’ coughs and colds be prevented?

Continuing with the theme of child health I have decided to look at the prevention of common infections such as those of the ear, nose and throat, and tummy upsets.  Children returning to school after the long holiday break will be exposed to others who they may not have seen in weeks and also to the various ‘bugs’ that they may be carrying.  Fear not, it is not inevitable that your children will end up feeling poorly and catching every illness around them! 

A healthy, strong immune system will help to prevent various infections, or keep them short and less intense if they do occur.  Ensuring that your child is eating healthily will mean that they are getting all the vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids they need in order to keep their immune system fighting fit.  However, I am aware that many children are not regularly getting the recommended daily 5 portions of fruit and vegetables.  This may mean that they are lacking in essential nutrients and their immune system may not be running at optimum.  Certain supplements, specially formulated for children, may be helpful in supporting a healthy diet in order to keep the immune system healthy.  However, a supplement cannot be seen as a replacement for the foundations provided by a healthy lifestyle.

Here I will be looking at some of the evidence which suggests that a multivitamin and mineral supplement taken together with a fish oil supplement (to provide essential omega 3 fatty acids) and a pre/pro-biotic supplement could be useful in helping to prevent childhood infections. 

Two papers have been published by a group of researchers who used a fish oil and multivitamin-mineral supplement in children who regularly suffered from recurrent ear(1) and sinus(2) infections.  The studies were very small and preliminary but both suggested benefit in the prevention of these common childhood conditions.  The researchers suggest that such preventative treatments could reduce the need for prescribed antibiotics.  Evidence also exists to suggest that individuals who suffer from recurrent tonsillitis infections may have a disturbed balance of various vitamins(3,4) and minerals(5), especially lowered zinc levels.

Previously I have written about zinc and vitamin C in relation to the prevention and shortening of the common cold and I would recommend you visit this post for more information. 

A few months ago I wrote about the importance of maintaining a good balance of ‘friendly’ bacteria in the digestive system in order to boost immune function and how evidence suggests that taking a daily probiotic supplement may prevent the occurrence of the common cold.  Children who have suffered from recurrent infections will normally have been exposed to frequent courses of antibiotics.  Antibiotics may indeed have been useful for fighting the bacterial infection, however they also kill many of the beneficial bacteria that would normally live in a healthy gut.  This imbalance could lead to a less efficient immune system and an increased likelihood of further infections.  One study(6) revealed that; in children with acute infections of the upper and lower respiratory tract, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, a probiotic supplement seemed helpful in regulating the immune system.  A recent review paper(7) indicated that probiotics also have immune enhancing effects in children and may prevent infections and diarrhoea. 

A daily supplement containing probiotics and prebiotics (such as FOS fructooligosaccharides) may be worth considering.  For more information on prebiotics and probiotics I would suggest visiting the post on irritable bowel syndrome which defines and explains these supplements.

When considering multi-nutrient supplements I would suggest a child-specific ‘food-state’ supplement as these will be easily absorbed by the body.  Again I would like to stress that supplements should not be seen as a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet plentiful in a variety of colourful fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. 

Best wishes to all children for an enjoyable first term back at school!

(1)Linday LA, Dolitsky JN, Shindledecker RD, Pippenger CE. 2002.  Lemon-flavored cod liver oil and a multivitamin-mineral supplement for the secondary prevention of otitis media in young children: pilot research. Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol.  111(7 Pt 1):642-52.
(2)Linday LA, Dolitsky JN, Shindledecker RD.  2004.  Nutritional supplements as adjunctive therapy for children with chronic/recurrent sinusitis: pilot research. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol.  68(6):785-93.
(3)Aleszczyk J et al.  2001.  [Evaluation of vitamin and immune status of patients with chronic palatal tonsillitis][Polish Article].  Otolaryngol Pol.  55:65-67
(4)Shukla GK et al.  1998.  Comparative status of oxidative damage and antioxidant enzymes in chronic tonsillitis patients.  Boll Chim Farm.  137:206-209
(5)Onerci M et al.  1997.  Trace elements in children whith chronic and recurrent tonsillitis.  Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol.  41:47-51
(6)Lykova EA, Vorob’ev AA, Bokovoi AG, Murashova AO.  2001.  [Impaired interferon status in children with acute respiratory infection and its correction with bifidumbacterin-forte] [Article in Russian].  Zh Mikrobiol Epidemiol Immunobiol.   Mar-Apr;(2):65-7 
(7)Nova E, Wärnberg J, Gómez-Martínez S, Díaz LE, Romeo J, Marcos A. Immunomodulatory effects of probiotics in different stages of life. Br J Nutr. 2007 Oct;98 Suppl 1:S90-5.

Written by Ani Kowal