Pediatric Immunity: Why Fevers, Runny Noses, And Swollen Glands Are All A Normal Part of Childhood, and How to Support Your Child’s Immune System With Natural Medicine
During the early years of life, children rely primarily on a more rudimentary, “non-specific” immune response, which typically exhibits as fevers, runny noses, and swollen glands. These are the defenses we are born with, and they all play a role in what is called innate immunity.
As a child’s immune system develops, they become armed with a specialized response to pathogens including bacteria and viruses that have been encountered in the past. At this stage, specific antibodies are produced to help fight off foreign invaders. Typically in the first few years, we see far more innate immune symptoms in children, and the instinct is often to suppress, rather than support these processes. It is important to recognize that until adaptive immunity has reached full maturation, it is quite normal for children to primarily use their innate immune defenses, and that this is an important and healthy part of immune system development.
In the first few years of life, children will encounter a lot of “bugs”, and when we support rather than suppress their natural defenses, a strong and healthy immune system is established for preventing recurrent infections and optimizing health in the teenage and adult years.
CHILDREN’S TOP FOUR DEFENSE SYSTEMS AND HOW TO SUPPORT THEM NATURALLY
1. Mucous Membranes
Have you ever noticed that children always seem to have runny noses? Children have very active mucous membranes that function to trap pathogens so they cannot enter the body.
Help children to blow their noses frequently to eliminate bacteria and viruses from the body.
Use a steam inhalation or warm, steamy bath to help liquefy respiratory mucous secretions, increase circulation, and decrease congestion.
Diffuse essential oils such as eucalyptus and thyme, which have antimicrobial effects, helping to support the elimination of airborne bacteria and viruses.
Fevers serve an important purpose and have many beneficial effects. They are children’s main immune defense mechanism. A fever is defined as a body temperature above 38°C (100.4°F). A fever works in several ways to stimulate the immune system.
a) An increased temperature stimulates increased immune activity. White blood cells are released to help fight the infection.
b) Blood flow is increased through the liver to help break down and filter out invading pathogens.
c) Heart and lung activity are increased to support circulation of immune cells and the elimination of waste products.
d) A fever supports the full maturation of the innate immune system.
It is not uncommon for children to use a fever to fight off an infection for a few days.
A fever can commonly run up to 39°C (102.5°F) without adverse effects for age 3 months to 3 years, and 39.4°C (103°F) above the age of three.
Often at the first sign of a mild fever, I recommend giving children a warm bath to help support the natural immune response.
If a fever is too high, it is also not effective. Homeopathic remedies can be very effective in reducing a fever, and are prescribed based on specific symptoms that your child is exhibiting. Common homeopathic remedies for fever management include belladonna, chamomilla, and aconite, with a typical prescribed potency being 30c, 3-4x/day. A neutral temperature bath can also help to reduce body temperature. Occasionally over-the-counter medications for fever management are indicated, ideally only for short term use. These medications do have risks and side-effects and should only be used under your primary care provider’s guidelines.
Children should rest and drink fluids to prevent dehydration. Sports drinks contain high levels of sugar which can suppress the immune system and compromise a healthy recovery. A good rehydration alternative is to mix 1/3 cup juice with 2/3 cup water and add a pinch of salt and baking soda to help replace lost electrolytes.
When To Visit Your Doctor
If your child is under 3 months of age and is presenting with a fever, it is always important to consult your primary care provider for a complete physical examination to rule out any medical emergencies.
For any age group, it is important to consult your doctor if your child seems unusually lethargic, overly upset, is experiencing a severe headache, neck pain or stiffness, persistent vomiting, or a fever that is not responding to natural treatment. These can all be signs of an underlying bacterial infection that may require addition treatment.
3. The Microbiome
A child’s microbiome is also a critical primary defense system. An estimated seventy percent of immune activity in children resides in their microbiomes as healthy micro-organisms, which help to regulate the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi.
This branch of the immune system is notably compromised by antibiotic use, especially in young children. The vast majority of upper respiratory tract infections in children do not respond well to antibiotics since they are self-limiting, and viral in nature. It is ultimately best to use natural antimicrobial formulas and immune support whenever possible.
If children do require a pharmaceutical intervention with antibiotics, it is crucial to work on replenishing probiotic bacteria to help restore a healthy microbiome. This can, however, be challenging since our bodies have hundreds of strains of probiotic bacteria, and most probiotics only contain a few.
Choose a probiotic formula made specifically for children. Your naturopathic doctor can recommend an effective formula and an appropriate dosage depending on your child’s age and health history. I always recommend a human strain formula for children that contains bifidobacterium, one of the main strains of bacteria that is affected by antibiotic use.
Although there is not a therapeutic level of healthy bacteria in yogurt, especially for post-antibiotic care, consuming naturally fermented foods on a regular basis is another way to gently build the intestinal microbiome over time.
4. Immune Support Cells: neutrophils, monocytes, macrophages, natural killer cells
Children will develop swollen lymph nodes when these basic immune cells are activated. The lymph nodes help to filter out germs and waste products and are an area of concentrated immune cell activity. Swollen lymph nodes indicate that a child’s immune system is working hard to fight off an infection.
Gently massage from the ears down the sides of the neck to relieve lymphatic congestion and support drainage. This can be done using a small amount of castor oil (or olive oil if you do not have castor oil available).
Provide a healthy diet to support immune function. Focus on a whole foods diet rich in protein, healthy fats, fiber-rich grains, and a wide range of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed and genetically modified foods, and aim for under 25 grams of sugar/day.
Supplements: Vitamin C, D, and echinacea are safe and effective recommendations to support immune activity in children. Cod liver oil, which is rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin D and vitamin A, is also an excellent choice for supporting children’s immunity. Consult your ND for dosage guidelines. It is important to take the optimal dose for a child’s age to have a therapeutic effect.
In young children, symptoms such as fevers, runny noses, and swollen glands may appear alarming, however they are signs of a healthy immune response. If we can support these built-in defense systems to do what they were designed to do, and provide children with natural immune support, they will increase their resiliency to the next illness they encounter.