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Why parents of young children get sick more often

Kids are adorable “walking, talking bacteria spreaders.”
Tom Wang/Shutterstock

Welcome to Dear Julia, a column where readers submit everyday health questions. Which over-the-counter painkillers work best? Is it better to run or walk for exercise? Do fasting diets really work? Julia Belluz sifts through the research and consults with experts in the field to figure out how science can help us live happier and healthier lives.

Dear Julia: Why are the parents of young kids sick all the time?

My dear friend Adriana loves her two little boys very, very much. She also fondly refers to them as "walking, talking bacteria spreaders."

"We’ve tried everything to not get sick," she told me recently. "But even if you wash their hands and douse the house with bleach, when they get home from day care they still manage to infect everything and everyone."

Now we’re heading into back-to-school season, which Adriana and many other parents confront with a mixture of relief and dread. While it’s great to shuffle small children out of the house for the day, it also means they’ll be mingling in a cesspool of germs with other children — and bringing those bugs back to the rest of the family.

If you or your friends with young children seem to be getting sick a lot more compared with the pre-kid days, it’s not your imagination. I asked several pediatricians and infectious diseases specialists about what’s going on, and they pointed to at least four factors that conspire to make the already exhausting early parenting years a little more vomit- and flu-ridden.

1) Kids’ immune systems are developing, so they pick up everything

When children mingle with lots of strangers for the first time, usually in day care, their immune systems are being exposed to bacteria and viruses they’ve never seen before. This makes them much more susceptible to getting sick, particularly from highly infectious cold and flu viruses.

"They have no preexisting immunity," explained Aaron Michael Milstone, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. When babies are born, they are protected by immunity their mothers have passed down to them during pregnancy. "But those antibodies go away and kids become immunologically naive," he added.

So it’s no surprise researchers have found that kids younger than 6 get about six to eight colds per year. (Note: Those are only the studies on colds.) And if a child gets a virus she's never had before, because she has no preexisting protection, her illness is typically going to be more intense and last longer.

According to a review of the evidence on how long it takes symptoms to resolve in children, the range was staggering: It took 25 days for an acute cough to resolve, 15 days to clear a common cold, and 16 days to get rid of a nonspecific respiratory tract infection.

The other reason small kids get sick all the time is their less-than-hygienic behavior. It’s not uncommon to see them stick their hands in their nose, mouth, or diaper — or other kids’ noses, mouths, and diapers — and licking toys picked up off the ground. "These social factors put them more at risk," Milstone added.

2) Kids get sick with infections that parents don’t develop lifelong immunity to

You may have wondered why, if parents have already gone through the rounds of achy childhood illness, they then go through them again with their young children. Shouldn’t they already have strong immune protection?

The answer is yes and no.

Some of the bugs kids bring home are the kinds that parents don’t develop lasting immunity to. If kids have a bout of chickenpox, and the parent had chickenpox as a child, the parent will be spared, since most people develop lifelong immunity to the varicella-zoster virus after battling it.

But kids don’t merely get diseases that parents already have lifelong protection from. They also commonly pick up upper respiratory tract infections and flus — both caused by viruses that change all the time and that catch our immune systems off guard.

There is some good news here: Experience with previous similar viruses or bacteria will provide some protection, meaning the sickness in the parent won’t be as intense or as long-lasting as the sickness in the poor kid.

"Usually the parents are not getting fevers," said Robert Jacobson, a professor of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. "And usually their illnesses are relatively short-lived and rarely complicated. So [parents’] illnesses are not as severe and have fewer complications."

3) Children spend their time in germ factories — a.k.a. day care and school

When parents drop off their kids at day care or school, they may as well think of that place as a germ factory. Remember, they’re around all those other little kids with naive immune systems who are picking up and spreading whatever bugs are in the air or on their toys that day. So the children pass those germs around, and the cycle of sickness repeats. Again and again.

Jacobson explained: "Young children in day care appear to have more colds than children cared for at home." But with this comes some good news too: "When day care–attending children grow older and enter primary school with their peers who did not attend day care, the children who attended day care are less vulnerable to colds than those who did not." (The same seems to be true for gastroenteritis — commonly referred to as stomach flu.)

In other words, that period of intense exposure to illness at day care helps strengthen kids’ immune systems, which in turn means those kids get sick less often later in life.

4) Parents are tired and run-down

Parents, meanwhile, are much more likely to pick up these germs from their kids purely because they come into closer contact with them and have more exposure to their germs. They’re spending a lot of time around kids, and are doing things like changing diapers or cleaning up vomit. All these factors increase the likelihood of picking up whatever bug came home from day care.

This intense exposure to kids’ germs is compounded by the fact that young parents are often tired and worn out. When people don’t get enough sleep, they’re more at risk of getting sick after coming into contact with viruses or bacteria. And for many, there is perhaps no time of life with such prolonged sleep deprivation as during the early child-rearing years.

Is there anything parents can do to prevent getting their kids’ colds and flu?

Flor Munoz-Rivas, an associate professor of pediatrics in the section of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, advised parents to make sure their kids are vaccinated, and that they’re at day cares that require vaccination, so that preventable infections are staved off.

She also noted that keeping the house clean, washing kids’ hands, and washing your hands after touching kids’ secretions or changing diapers is a must. She suggested keeping kids home when they’re sick if possible, too.

Beyond that, there’s little you can do about this tough phase of life. But she warned, "If a parent becomes ill, they need to take care of themselves." Getting sleep and basic self-care can go a long way to staying healthy, she said. My friend with the two sons, who has been sleep-deprived for three years, would surely say that’s easier said than done.

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