During our childhood we are plagued by several infections a year. These diseases are very stressful for both the children and the parents who have to care for the sick child. But at the same time, each individual pathogen also strengthens the child's immune system and makes it more resistant.
In our article, we want to explain to you how the immune system works in children and why frequent colds are not necessarily a cause for concern. In the second part we describe various factors that strengthen the immune system and show you how you and your child can do something good with a healthy lifestyle.
the essentials in brief
- After birth, a child is protected by the mother's nest protection for the first few months. Only then does your own immune system develop.
- Since the immune system only develops gradually, it is normal for children to become ill several times a year. Every contact with pathogens strengthens and trains the child's immune system.
- A healthy and balanced diet, enough sleep, little stress and plenty of exercise in the fresh air are the simplest and most effective ways to strengthen the immune system.
Definition: What is the immune system and how does it work?
The immune system is the body's own defence, which protects our organism from foreign substances.
Our skin and mucous membranes serve as the first line of defense against bacteria, viruses or parasites. As soon as germs have overcome the anatomical barriers and have not been rendered harmless by the stomach acid, they are attacked by two other elements of the immune system.
On the one hand, our body has a non-specific defense in which the invaders are surrounded by scavenger cells and broken down. In the case of acquired and specific defence, on the other hand, our body uses antibodies to attack pathogens in a targeted manner. After an illness, the antibodies remember the nature of the pathogen and can act quickly and effectively against the invader if it is infected again.
As soon as pathogens enter the body, we usually notice the first symptoms such as coughing or a runny nose. The body uses these symptoms to try to rid itself of the pathogen, which means that they are part of the body's defense mechanism (1).
Background: What you should know about the immune system in children
Before we pass on tips for strengthening the immune system, we first want to provide you with important background information.
In the following paragraphs we will therefore answer various frequently asked questions about the child's immune system.
How does the immune system develop in children?
The immune system is not fully developed at birth. Instead, the immune system is one of the building blocks of the organism that only gradually achieve their full functionality.
Nevertheless, even infants are not without protection. During pregnancy, the unborn child absorbs antibodies from the mother via the placenta and thus receives the so-called nest protection. In addition, infants absorb additional antibodies through the milk when breastfeeding.
While small children are only protected by the scavenger cells of the non-specific immune system after nest protection, they gradually acquire a strong specific immune system.
Gradually, more and more diseases are now also being combated by specific antibodies and there are fewer infections. From around the age of 10, the immune system knows most pathogens and protects the child from many diseases.
We also use the same system for vaccinations. With a vaccination, a weakened or dead pathogen is injected, against which the immune system can usually defend itself unnoticed. At the same time, however, the structure of the pathogen is noted and one is protected from renewed infection.
During pregnancy, the unborn child absorbs immune substances from the mother. These protect the newborn in the first few months from diseases against which the mother is protected by a vaccination or previous illness. Further antibodies are transferred via the milk during breastfeeding.
This nest protection usually lasts for the first 4 to 6 months. Once the mother's defenses are gone, the baby's immune system is left to fend for itself. The immune system now learns from every foreign body contact and forms specific antibodies. At the same time, the child is still protected by breast milk during this time, provided that it is breastfed.
This means that every little cold or stuffy nose trains the immune system. As a result, the immune system develops very quickly, especially in the first 3 years of life.
What causes a weakened immune system in children?
Small children are often affected by up to 12 infections per year because the immune system is not yet fully developed. Only if your child is regularly affected by serious illnesses can this be an indication of an immune deficiency.
But how does a weakened immune system come about?
A weakened immune system can have several reasons, one of which is an insufficient supply of nutrients, which is often neglected when the immune system is required.
At the same time, the immune system is weakened with little exercise and contact with fresh air. Even in winter, children should dress warmly and go outside regularly. Colds often come when there is a lot to do, because stress and lack of sleep also weaken our immune system.
Another phenomenon, that too much hygiene and excessive cleaning behavior weakens the immune system and promotes allergies, researchers at the LMU Munich could not directly conclude. At the same time, however, it has been proven that children who grow up on a farm suffer less often from allergies than their classmates (2).
How does the immune system behave after an illness?
As long as the body's defense system is working properly, we don't notice it. If the immune system is weakened and can no longer assert itself against pathogens, we notice it and become ill.
In order not to catch the next infection immediately after an illness, it is important to strengthen the immune system. The best way to do this is to slowly get back into everyday life to give the body enough time to get fit again. A healthy diet and exercise in the fresh air is particularly good for our bodies these days.
How does the immune system behave after taking antibiotics?
Antibiotics not only act against pathogens, but also damage the intestinal bacteria. How far-reaching negative consequences this has in childhood, however, needs to be further investigated (3). A study in mice also showed that antibiotics impair the immune system, but again, more research is needed to be definitive (4).
In addition, against the background of increasing antibiotic resistance, antibiotics should only be used if it is really necessary and prescribed by a doctor.
In order to rebuild the intestinal flora after antibiotic treatment, it is advisable to eat probiotic foods such as natural yoghurt, kefir or quark, as these supply the intestine with important bacteria. In addition, prebiotic fibers, which are found in whole grain products or fruit and vegetables, for example, are helpful as high-quality food for the intestinal bacteria.
Are dietary supplements useful for children?
A study published in 2005 showed that most young children get enough nutrients from their normal diet and therefore do not need any additional supplements (5).
In addition, the consumer advice center in Germany carried out a market check of 26 food supplements for children and found that most of the products were overdosed. Too many vitamins or minerals can lead to fatigue, headaches or nausea, among other things (6).
Strengthening the immune system in children: The best tips for strengthening the immune system in children
There are a few preventive measures you can take to boost your child's immune system.
These are broken down in more detail in the following paragraphs.
Healthy and balanced diet
A healthy and balanced diet is an important factor for an intact immune system. It is particularly important to eat enough fruit and vegetables. Because people in Germany tend not to eat enough fruit and vegetables, the German Society for Nutrition launched the "5 a day" campaign.
At least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables should be eaten daily.
Depending on age and body size, 5 portions per day correspond to 400 g of vegetables and 250 g of fruit per day.
Fruit and vegetables are among the most important suppliers of vitamins, which is why you are well supplied with the above recommendation. Nevertheless, a balanced diet is also important when it comes to vitamins, which should also include meat, grain products and vegetable oils.
For vitamin D, it is also recommended to be in the fresh air regularly and to eat fish 1-2 times a week, especially in winter (7).
In the following we have put together a small table with foods that are particularly rich in vitamins:
|vitamin||Food containing vitamins|
|Vitamin A||carrots, spinach, milk|
|Vitamin B1||Pork, peas, whole grains|
|Vitamin B2||Dairy products, meat, fish|
|Vitamin B3||Chicken breast, liver, green leafy vegetables|
|Vitamin B5||Plize, sunflower seeds|
|Vitamin B6||Avocado, banana, potatoes, walnuts|
|Vitamin B7||nuts, egg yolks, lentils|
|Vitamin B9||Oranges, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli|
|Vitamin B12||Camembert, fish|
|vitamin C||Peppers, kiwi, citrus fruits|
|Vitamin D||fatty fish (tuna, salmon)|
|vitamin E||nuts, vegetable oils|
|vitamin k||Spinach, cabbage, lettuce|
Drinking a lot strengthens the immune system, among other things because it keeps the mucous membranes active. While the recommended value for an adult is 1.5 - 2 liters per day, the German Society for Nutrition recommends the following values for children
- 1 - 4 years: 820 ml
- 4 - 7 years: 940 ml
- 7 - 10 years: 970 ml
- 10 - 13 years: 1170 ml
- 13 - 15 years: 1330 ml
Enough sleep & little stress
Getting enough sleep is another factor in a good immune system. Sleep supports our cells in their defense work, while even a few hours of sleep deprivation inhibit the immune system (8.9">.
In order to have an indication of how much a child should sleep, one can assume the following sleep requirements:
- Up to 3 months: 17 hours
- 3 to 12 months: 14 hours
- 1 to 3 years: 13 hours
- 4 years: 12 hours
- 5 years: 11.5 hours
- 6 years: 11 hours
At the same time, research has also found a connection between stress and the immune system. While short-term stress initially stimulates the immune system to prepare the body, long-term or chronic stress leads to a deterioration in the immune system, which in extreme cases can even collapse(10,11">.
Movement supports the immune system, as both the immune system and the metabolism are strengthened. Regular exercise thus improves the immune system and delays age-related dysfunction (12,13).
So offer your child the opportunity to exercise outside, for example in a couple in the garden, but even better in a play or sports group or on the playground. In summer, the sun also ensures that we absorb enough vitamin D and thus strengthen the immune system. But even in winter you should get out into the fresh air with your child and warm clothes every day.
When it comes to homeopathy, opinions differ. One of the reasons for this is that the manufacturers do not have to submit any studies on the effectiveness during the approval process, which is why the effect is often doubted. On the other hand, there is an overview study from Switzerland, for example, which confirms the effectiveness of homeopathy (14). However, further studies are needed to definitively answer the question.
Nevertheless, homeopathic remedies are very popular in Germany and can, for example, be used in the form of globules to strengthen the immune system in children. In order to decide which homeopathic treatment is best for your child, you should consult with one of the approximately 7000 doctors with additional homeopathic training.
More home remedies
Two other factors that have been explored through studies are the effects of zinc and cold showers on our immune system.
- Take cold showers : According to the study published in 2018, regular cold showers lead to a reduction in sick leave at work, but not a reduction in self-reported sick days (15).
- Zinc : According to the American study, zinc leads to an improvement in the symptoms of a common cold (16).
If you like, you can watch the following video by Galileo about another all-rounder for our health: ginger.
Since the immune system develops gradually, it is normal for children to be affected by several infections per year. Every contact with a pathogen trains the child's immune system. At the same time, we can also help our immune system with a healthy lifestyle
Most factors to strengthen the immune system can be implemented for both adults and children. The most important things are a healthy and balanced diet, enough sleep, little stress and lots of exercise in the fresh air.