How to boost kids' immune systems: Doctors say there's more to keeping kids healthy in winter than taking supplements

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Before parents give kids supplements to boost their immune health, doctors say there are other things they should try. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Before parents give kids supplements to boost their immune health, doctors say there are other things they should try. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Whether it's COVID-19 or the common cold, parents know that children are always bringing home bugs — and not the six-legged kind.

Daycares, mommy-and-me classes, playgrounds and doctors' offices are filled with germs that kids seem to pick up and spread to anyone and everyone around them. So what makes kids' immune systems different than adult immune systems, and how can we boost our children's immune systems so they spend less time being sick and more time enjoying life?

Understanding kids' immune systems

First, it's important to understand that kids' immune systems work differently than grown-ups'.

The mucous membranes in a child's airways are considerably more active than those of adults, according to a 2021 study in the journal Nature Biotechnology. These membranes react much faster to viruses: Not only are childrens' mucous membranes more active than grown-ups', they also produce many more antibodies that fight infection.

On the other hand, kids are constantly putting items in their mouths and touching everything around them as they learn sensory perception, and those little hands inevitably make it to their mouths, eyes, ears and noses.

According to Dr. Anjuli Gans, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the blessing in disguise is that sometimes the more your kid gets sick, the better their immune system knows what to do for the next time. And with kids, there's always a next time.

Newborns are at greater risk for illnesses than young children, since an infant's immune system doesn't mature until they're around 2 or 3 months old. In the meantime, according to Dr. Camille Sabella, a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic, a mother's immune system does continue to protect her infant with antibodies that are shared through the placenta immediately after birth and stay active for the first few weeks of life.

Sarah Tanner, a mom of five from Sammamish, Wash., is an optometrist. Her husband is an emergency room physician, so they're both constantly exposed to germs that don't belong to them.

"Our first babies were a set of identical twin girls, born six weeks early. Until they reached their due date and a healthy full-term weight, we implemented extra protocols to avoid spreading germs to them," Tanner says. "When the babies were about 6 weeks old, their grandmother came to visit. I recall she had a slight cold at the time, so we had her wear a mask inside the house."

As their family grew, Tanner and her husband looked to their pediatrician for advice on building their children's immune systems. "Her advice was simple avoidance of germs as much as possible," says Tanner. "That and vaccinations. As parents who are also physicians, we also felt that herbal supplementation lacked the evidence we needed to be comfortable giving them to our babies without a doctor's recommendation."

So, can you boost a child's immunity?

According to Dr. David Stukus, a pediatric allergy and immunology specialist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, simply put — not really.

"There's no high-quality evidence that supports the use of any supplement to 'boost' a child's immune system," he tells Yahoo Life. "There's very good evidence that vitamin C doesn't prevent colds and neither does high-dose vitamin D."

Attempting to boost immunity, Stukus says, can even have unintended negative consequences, especially for children with allergies and other immunosuppressive conditions, making their immune systems overactive enough to cause health impairment.

Stukus urges parents to focus on their child's overall health instead of "quick fixes with good marketing."

"Overall health is how children's immune systems are actually supported," he says. "This includes eating a wide variety of healthy foods, consistently getting 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night, regular activity and exercise and stress reduction through relaxation."

Take folk remedies with a grain of salt — or a spoonful of elderberry

In addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables and a healthy diet, many parents look to age-old home remedies for boosting their children's immune systems, some with more scientific evidence behind them than others.

Some vitamins and minerals that are said to aid in proper — but not "boosted" — immune system function include:

  • Zinc, which may aid in reducing inflammation and help build immune cells.

  • Vitamins A, C, D and E, which could support cellular function in the immune system and act as anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants.

  • Iron, which may help carry oxygen to blood cells, helping them fight infection more efficiently.

  • Echinacea, which is said to increase the number of white blood cells.

  • Honey, which could have anti-inflammatory, immune system and antimicrobial benefits.

Stukus says these more holistic remedies aren't proven to increase immune health.

"Most of them probably won't hurt much," he adds, "and honey can help soothe a sore throat, but focusing on these as primary prevention or treatment methods won't provide much benefit."

The jury is still out on other popular "immune-boosting" natural supplements, including elderberry syrup, which has gained popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. But the efficacy and medicinal properties of elderberry are widely disputed in the medical community, according to the National Institutes of Health, and medicinal use has not been approved by the FDA.

Stukus also advises parents of children 6 months and older to make sure their kids receive the flu vaccine each fall as it's the only scientifically proven flu prevention. "Influenza circulates every year and is capable of causing severe illness in any child, particularly ones with underlying chronic medical conditions like asthma," he says. "It's not always a perfect match, but still it's our best approach to preventing severe illness from the flu."

Still, many parents do turn to preventative measures like vitamin gummies and elderberry syrup for help keeping their kids healthy.

Rachelle Freeman, a mom to two school-aged girls, maintains concern about her kids losing time at school and at their extracurricular activities due to illness. "They're both in competitive sports that have hefty attendance policies," says Freeman, who lives in Fort Mill, S.C. "By not staying healthy, they run the risk of getting each other and their teammates sick."

Freeman says missing practice means potentially being swapped out as an alternate on their team, something that she doesn't want to see happen. "They've worked hard to earn their spots," she says.

Freeman offers her daughters several immune-boosting supplements in hopes of keeping them healthy and off the bench. "They both take a seasonal allergy medicine," she says, "and then we use a multivitamin that is age-appropriate and has an immunity booster. The one we use has elderberry, vitamin C and zinc."

Freeman says they've been lucky that neither daughter has picked up anything outside the common cold or a sinus infection since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. "There was a breakout of RSV at school a few months ago and somehow we bypassed that," she says, adding that she still relies on her pediatrician for advice. "I've always been a fan of integrating Eastern and Western medicine and have been fortunate to have medical professionals to brainstorm with when I have questions."

Stukus urges parents to take "anecdotal evidence" with a grain of salt, as most claims aren't backed up with scientific fact or large well-defined studies.

Two pieces of advice he offers: "If it sounds too good to be true, it always is. Your doctors want you to be well. We're not hiding anything from you." Additionally, "If the same source of information [regarding a supplement or remedy] is also selling supplements, products or services, run the other direction — it's a major conflict of interest."

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