As we enter peak respiratory virus season, parents should be prudent

by Dr. Cory Franklin and Dr. Mary Hall

Over thousands of years, viruses and humans have evolved together. The spread of viruses is a basic feature of nature, and it is an immutable fact that controlling nature is difficult, but not always impossible. In this respect, notable human accomplishments include agriculture, sanitation, hydroelectric power, vaccines and aviation. Those, however, are exceptions. More often, attempts to control nature are either extremely limited in success or result in outright failure.

More successful than our attempts at controlling nature has been our ability to accommodate and coexist with it. When it comes to respiratory viruses, children are especially adept at this. Their immune systems are designed to respond immediately and efficiently to viruses they confront for the first time. This is probably why, in the case of COVID-19, they were less likely to get sick than adults, for whom the virus was also a new encounter.

For various reasons, there was very little spread of respiratory viruses for the first two years of the pandemic. Those viruses are spreading now, and children have some catching up to do in their response to the viruses in their environment owing to unusually low viral exposure in 2020 and 2021. Fortunately, kids are well adapted to manage this catch-up process, and the annoyance of them suffering through a seemingly interminable series of viruses actually means we are well on our way through this process.

What can parents do in the face of the likelihood their children will get sick this winter? The primary goal is to help children feel better when they get colds or respiratory infections. This includes providing physical and emotional comfort and knowing the warning signs of when something more serious can be developing. This is admittedly not always easy because when kids are sick, they are uncomfortable. Parents, sensing that discomfort, will understandably be distressed.

Take heart, this is not all bad: From the standpoint of the child’s immune system, a viral infection is a balancing act. It is frightening to have a virus overwhelm the immune system, but this is a rare occurrence. At the same time, the child’s body is learning how to fight that virus more effectively, preparing for the next round.

Another parental responsibility is teaching kids not to spread viruses. This means using good manners such as washing hands and coughing into elbows. Have children stay home from school when they are sick. But remember that the spread of viruses is inevitable, especially with children. Kids will always catch colds from other kids, and the best parents can do is cut down on the frequency of transmission. By allowing youngsters to participate in normal activities, parents are actually helping kids — even with the awareness the children will sometimes be exposed — because those illnesses make the body stronger and healthier. Keep in mind that once the child has recovered, his or her body will have learned something new about that virus and as a result fortified its defenses.

Parents can also be proactive by helping kids keep their bodies healthy, so they are well prepared if and when they do get a viral illness. This includes reminding children to eat healthy foods and get exercise and enough sleep. For their mental health, minimize screen time. No good will come from long hours with cellphones, iPads, computers or the television.

In winter 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, responses of the government and medical community were designed to protect older and sicker people, who were the primary victims of COVID-19. Inadvertently, these measures did much to hurt children physically, mentally, socially and developmentally. The virus was extremely contagious, and there were many things we didn’t know about COVID-19, including the fact that children were at much lower risk of severe illness. Much of the harm was done in an attempt to control nature and stop COVID-19 completely, which in this case turned out to be a fool’s errand as mainland China is now discovering to its chagrin.

Authorities may have overstepped in trying to protect our children from harm over the past three years, but parents can right the situation going forward. Be prudent. Protect your children from the slings and arrows of this season’s respiratory viruses — but don’t overprotect them. Their immune systems are resilient, and in virtually every case, the children will recover and be stronger for it. Pay as much attention to their mental and emotional health as you do to their physical well-being — in fact, maybe more, because those aspects are fragile and parents can do much to be a positive influence.

Love is as important as any medication — that is one way you can control nature.

Dr. Cory Franklin is a retired intensive care physician. Dr. Mary Hall is a pediatrician in private practice in Skokie, Ill.