What's often overlooked in back-to-school health advice? Grandma's wisdom, handed down through the generations. 

By Dr. Harley A. Rotbart
September 08, 2015
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Ahh...the sounds of kids back at school. The symphony of sneezing, sniffling, and coughing in a typical classroom can drown out the poor teacher's lessons. After a summer outdoors in the wide open spaces, and now packed into tight spaces with all their germy friends, it's no surprise that kids get sick within days of returning to school.

Everyone knows the tried and true ways to keep kids healthy despite the onslaught of school germs. We need to teach our kids good handwashing habits and proper cough and sneeze etiquette. Childhood immunizations protect kids from germs that once spread like wildfire in schools: polio, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and meningitis. Getting kids immunized against influenza each fall improves their chances of staying healthy through the winter, as well.

But, what's often overlooked in back-to-school health advice is Grandma's wisdom handed down through the generations. Many of us grew up with Grandma teaching us that illness came from being underdressed in cold weather, or overdressed in warm weather. If our hair was wet when we went outdoors, guaranteed sickness. If our feet got wet in the snow or rain, sick again – we had caught a chill! Food and drink, of course, were also critical determinants of health. Hot was healing - chicken soup, oatmeal, tea with honey. If we got enough sleep, we stayed healthy—if not, sickness. Our grandparents told us to get outdoors and play because exercise keeps us healthy.

Well, Grandma was right about a lot of things, including these now scientifically proven ways to keep your kids healthy as they head back to school.

Studies have shown that lack of sleep results in a weakened immune system. In one study, 10 days after receiving the flu vaccine, sleep-deprived adults had less than half the amount of flu immunity (protective antibodies measured in the blood) compared with a normal sleep group. Grandma was right—your kids' immune systems need adequate sleep. At least 8 hours a night, and 10 for most young kids.

Weather and wardrobe

Will kids get fewer infections if they bundle up in the cold and wear their boots in the rain? Let's start with the term the "common cold." It's not a coincidence that the word "cold" applies to both the weather and the sniffles. The sniffles are called a "cold" because everyone form the beginning of time knows that colds are more frequent when it's cold outside. But now there's science as well as language to support the relationship. In a recent study, 90 volunteers sat with their bare feet in a bucket of ice water for 20 minutes, while another 90 "controls" kept their feet in an empty bucket, still wearing their socks and shoes. Nearly 30 percent of the cold feet group developed common cold symptoms within the next 5 days, compared to only 9 percent of the warm-and-dry-footed volunteers. How can this be? How can 20 minutes of an icy foot bath cause 3 times the number of colds? The theory is that we are all occasionally infected with respiratory viruses; oftentimes we don't get sick because our immune system halts the virus in its tracks. If, however, we experience a body chilling event while the virus is loitering in our nasal passages, our defenses are temporarily lowered and the virus gets the upper hand, making us sick. So, bundle your kids up in the cold weather.


The strongest scientific evidence in support of Grandma's wisdom involves the role of exercise in the health of our immune systems. Several well-done clinical trials in adults have shown that daily or almost-daily moderate exercise reduces sick days by half compared with non-exercising adults in the same studies. A large study of nearly 550 adults examined the relationship between physical activity and days of upper respiratory tract infections (the "common cold"). There was nearly a 30 percent reduction in episodes of respiratory infections in the group with the highest level of regular physical activity. It's as if exercising gets our immune systems "in better shape" to respond when challenged by infection, even as exercise gets our muscles and cardiovascular system in better shape to respond to other challenges. Enroll your kids in after-school activities that get them off the couch and moving!

Chicken soup and honey

Chicken soup has been prescribed by Grandma for centuries. In modern times, this wonderful elixir has been given to treat the common cold and the flu. There are several theoretical reasons that chicken soup might help these conditions, but there is no actual scientific proof that chicken soup prevents or treats infections. Even though we can't prove Grandma right on this one, feed it to your kids whenever they are sick—it tastes great, makes the house smell wonderful, and shows your kids that you love them. Serve it to your kids when they're not sick, too—same reasons.

Over-the-counter cough medicines don't work in kids and pose a risk for side effects and for accidental overdose (because kids like the taste of some of these products and will drink from an open bottle left in reach). Grandmothers have long known that honey (in tea, in milk, or straight up) makes kids with coughs and colds feel better. A study recently proved that, again, Grandma is right. Honey performed better than cough medicine or no treatment at all in easing the cough and helping kids sleep through the cough. (A warning though: Honey should not be given to kids under 15 months of age because of the risk of botulism).


Listen to your grandmother!

Dr. Harley A. Rotbartis Professor andVice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, includingNo Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York TimesMotherlodeblog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).


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