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Children put parents at increased risk of infection

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By Carolyn Butler
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Not long ago, I had one of those moments that only other parents or full-time caregivers of young children are likely to understand: I was sitting in our family room holding my miserably sick baby, who was sneezing, coughing and drooling all over me, when my older son stumbled into the room and said, "My belly hurts," just before throwing up all over the lot of us. As I cleaned up and tried to comfort both kids at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder which I'd start doing first: hacking or vomiting.

Indeed, one of the many things that I took for granted before I had kids -- in addition to the bliss of a good night's sleep and being able to keep my clothes clean for a full day -- was relative good health, particularly during cold and flu season. In fact, since having my boys -- one is 3 years old, the other 7 months -- I have suffered through a dazzling array of ailments right along with them, from multiple bouts of bronchitis to pinkeye and every 24-hour stomach virus imaginable. (It seems just dumb luck that we've avoided the dreaded H1N1 flu thus far, although I've probably jinxed it now!) Among the four of us in the house, I don't think there's been a moment without a runny nose since the end of summer. Mo' kids, mo' germs, mo' problems.

While there hasn't been much research on the topic, experts agree that the caregivers of young children are far more likely to fall ill than adults without kids.

"We see it in practice all the time, pretty consistently: Parents get sick more often," says Thomas Campbell, chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and co-author of "Families and Health." "Young kids are a reservoir of germs, and if they're at day care, preschool or anyplace else where they're around other children, they're in a super-virus environment and the perfect vectors for illness and for passing viruses around. Kids hug and touch and share toys and saliva and cough all over each other, and then parents hug and kiss their kids. Nothing else compares, contact-wise -- we don't go to work and hug and kiss our colleagues."

In addition to the exposure issue, Campbell notes that lack of sleep and increased stress can hamper immune response.

Sociology professor Debra Umberson, co-author of a forthcoming review on parenthood's effect on well-being in the Journal of Marriage and Family, agrees that children are "disease vectors," but they also can be helpful to adult health in the long term.

"Once you have children," she says, "you tend to take better care of your health, in terms of behavior like drinking, smoking and other risk-taking, which offers benefits and protects you from mortality. But on the other hand, (parents) also exercise less and gain more weight than folks who do not have children, which is not good."

In the short term, another byproduct of raising these smiling, sneezing petri dishes is that a stomach bug that affects a child for all of an afternoon can fell an adult for days. "You would think that you've had 30 or 40 years of exposure to these types of viruses and so you'd be protected, but very often it doesn't turn out that way," says Campbell, citing hepatitis A and chickenpox as classic examples of illnesses that are typically mild for children and much more serious for adults.

And, Umberson adds, having to nurse others while you're under the weather only complicates the situation: "Once you get sick when you have little kids, you can't take care of yourself -- you have to take care of everyone else -- and so it's harder to recover. It takes longer and is more unpleasant."

Often, when I'm being sneezed or coughed on, I wonder if it's futile to even try to stop the spread of infection in our house. But Benard Dreyer, a pediatrics professor at the New York University School of Medicine, says it is possible. He suggests starting with proper (read: almost obsessive) hand washing and the liberal use of hand sanitizers. He also recommends staying out of waiting rooms in doctor's offices and the emergency room -- "major reservoirs for disease" -- as much as possible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released recommendations for preventing the spread of H1N1, but presumably for any other virus, too, in the home which include such optimistically impractical tips as constantly wearing a mask, keeping sick people isolated in their rooms and staying at least six feet away from them at all times.

Not surprisingly, some have questioned how useful this advice really is for moms, dads or other caregivers dealing with a sick, unhappy child. The CDC is "adapting what is recommended to health-care facilities for the home, but nobody runs their home like a hospital -- it's not doable," Dreyer says. "What you really need to do is use your judgment about your own situation -- like if you're pregnant or have a newborn, you may actually want to use masks -- and then take the basic principles and apply them to your home in a realistic way."

Still, don't despair if you catch that cold. It turns out that all of this shared illness has an upside.

"Once a child starts to develop a functioning immune system, at about six months, then the exposure to general viruses and germs that you find at day care, school, the supermarkets, the playground or parties, which is hard to avoid, isn't particularly a bad thing, because it helps build and stimulate the immune system," says Bethesda pediatrician Robert Shearin. "If you're getting that kind of exposure year after year, we hope it will be able to help kids fight other infections and stay healthier later on."

In the meantime, Shearin acknowledges this has been the busiest -- i.e., sickest -- fall he has seen in more than 25 years.

So if you're a parent or full-time caregiver of small children, stock up on the Kleenex, wash your hands as often as possible, pray for some luck and know that someday this, too, shall pass.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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