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How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Kids’ Immune Systems?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic provided us with very few silver linings. We got to work from home, avoid office Christmas parties, and arguably the best perk of them all was our kids getting less sick during the usual sniffle and cough-filled seasons. In fact, the 2020 flu season was one of the lowest on record. The CDC reported 2,038 confirmed flu cases from Sept. 27, 2020 to April 24, 2021. In a typical flu season, the United States could see more than 9 million cases.

And doctors can pinpoint why. 

“Last winter 2020, pediatricians across the country noticed a drop in the common cold, flu, and other typical winter viruses likely due to the amount of physical distancing, masking and virtual school that was happening,” said Dr. Steph Lee, pediatrician in Pennsylvania, preventive medicine specialist and AAP spokesperson. 

But with all those preventive measures in place, as 2021 rolled around and kids headed back into schools, playdates and somewhat normal routines, germs were bound to spread and spread fast. So much so that it seems like kids are getting more sick this year, and parents are left scratching their heads as to why and how they can help. 

So, we asked a few doctors what’s going on and here’s what they had to say.

What is the purpose of the immune system, specifically in children? 

In short, the immune system protects us and does its best to keep us healthy. When the cells, tissues and organs that make up the system work together in unison, they can recognize a foreign object or substance and band together to fight it off. Our bodies’ reaction to a breach, especially in children, might look like a fever or runny nose according to Dr. Nkeiruka Orajiaka, MD, MPH and attending Pediatrician in Emergency Medicine in Columbus Ohio.

“After a first exposure to some of these foreign microbes, our bodies may produce antibodies to defend and protect us from any future invasion or damage,” she said. “This means that when these same foreign microbes enter our bodies again, our bodies automatically fight them with the antibodies already made from the first time. Antibodies can also be produced when we receive immunizations against certain microbes.”

Has washing wands, masking up and social distancing strengthened our kid’s immune systems?

Doctors agree that it comes down to previous exposures and the level of social distancing a specific child practiced. For younger children who were unable to attend their first year of school in-person, a time in a child’s life where they’re introduced to new germs, they are likely to adapt when they do enter a new in-person setting. However, for kids who are a bit older and have already been exposed to germs, the social distancing and masking up might result in a higher chance of catching a cold this year as they ease back into a normal routine. 

“Our immune system strengthens the more it is exposed to different things. Every time we are infected with a new virus or bacteria, our body makes antibodies to help fight and then remember that virus,” said Dr. Elena Shea, FAAP, IBCLC. “Keeping this in mind, quarantine has limited all of our exposure to illnesses. So yes, arguably these measures weaken the immune system because they limit our exposure to pathogens. This isn’t permanent though and our immune systems will be able to respond appropriately when we do resume normal living.”

So, why does it feel like our kids are getting more sick this year?

While this might not feel normal, it is. When people were physically distanced, wearing masks and in virtual school, close contact was minimized and cold and simple viruses were not as common, according to Dr. Lee. “However, since those safety protocols were relaxed and we’ve attempted to return to some semblance of normal, certain viruses besides Covid have resurged,” she said.”

With restrictions easing, and more germs circulating it’s inevitable that colds and viruses will return and our bodies will have to rebuild immunity. 

“My own children, who have been in daycare throughout the pandemic, had had no illnesses before March. That is when the mask mandate was dropped in Virginia.  Since then they’ve been sick probably once a month,” said Dr. Shea. “Keep in mind, pre-pandemic most kids in daycare or school got sick on average every two to four weeks with a mild illness. So while we are seeing more illness than over the last year, I don’t think it’s more than it was pre-pandemic.”

How can we best protect our kids this cold and flu season?

While the number of colds are bound to increase this season, doctors agree not to worry. This is normal and fully expected, and taking the proper precautions you’ve always taken to protect your kids is what you should do. This includes wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing and making sure your kids are up to date on their immunizations like measles, tetanus, whooping cough and the flu. And if they are older than 12, they should get the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Parents should also have a decontamination plan when their kids get home from school. This way, any excessive microbes they were exposed to can be limited to spreading more in their homes,” said Dr. Orajiaka. “Other ways to help boost their immunity and protect them include: adequate exercise of at least 1-2 hours per day, quality sleep and a healthy diet consisting of fruits and vegetables too.”

Before you go, check out our favorite cold and cough remedies for kids that are all natural: 

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