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Why prevention's the key when it comes to parents' well-being

If you've got young children, chances are you regularly catch bugs from them. Doctors discuss this sickness cycle, and offer tips on how to avoid it

By Lisa Salmon

If there's one thing you can guarantee about a child, it's that they'll catch some, if not all, of the bugs going round their school or nursery.

And what's almost as certain is that someone else in the family - usually mum - will then catch it too.

Indeed, new research shows the average mum will fall ill 324 times over their offspring's childhood with colds and bugs passed on to them by their child.

An endless cycle of sore throats, runny noses and sickness bugs means the average mum will feel under the weather 18 times a year, suffering from a total of 54 colds, 108 sore throats or runny noses, 36 sickness bugs and an annual bout of flu.

The majority (80%) of parents polled by the supplements firm Healthspan say the bugs can usually be traced back to their children, and that they suffer for days after nursing their kids back to health.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, says: "Spending so much time with their children, it's inevitable that parents are at higher risk of picking up any illnesses their child has, particularly viral infections such as colds that children inevitably catch from their friends and classmates.

"Ensuring good hygiene practices will reduce the chance of infections passing around the entire family."

She says many minor ailments can be treated quickly with over-the-counter remedies or with the advice of a pharmacist, but stresses that if an illness persists or worsens, patients should contact their GP for further advice.

She adds: "It's important that parents look after their own health and well-being, so that minor illnesses don't develop into something more serious."

The study found 68% of mums had been more prone to falling ill since having children, with 39% saying they now constantly feel under the weather.

But part of the sickness cycle could be that mums are so busy looking after their children that they forget to look after themselves.

GP Dr Sarah Brewer, Healthspan's medical director, says: "Mums are often on the front line when it comes to the family's illnesses and, due to time pressures and putting others first, are often poor at looking after themselves.

"Prevention is key and it's important for mums to look after themselves."

The study also found that a third of parents fell ill over Christmas, with 65% saying they often fall ill once they switch off a little or take a break from work.

In fact, 70% of mums say they've fallen ill while away on holiday or off work. "Stress has a negative effect on immunity, especially when you start to relax at the end of a stressful period," says Brewer.

This is known as the let-down effect, she says, explaining that getting sick at the end of a period of stress is linked with a drop in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"The body switches from the fight-or-flight reaction to a rest-and-digest response and the high level of immune vigilance is relaxed," she says.

"This is why you experience a flare-up of existing conditions such as migraine or cold sores, and increased susceptibility to cold viruses."

Women tend to soldier on when they're ill, and 84% of mums feel they're unable to relax when ill, compared to seven in 10 dads.

And 72% of women reckon they cope better than their partner when they're ill.

Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll says this pattern may be related to our innate drive to do everything we can to ensure our offspring's survival.

"In our ancestors' time, men would have needed to be fit and well to fight-or-flight in face of a threat," she explains.

"But women, having different roles, safeguarded their family.

"We haven't changed that much, and so even now with differing gender roles, women's protective instincts kick in - they care for others over themselves, whereas men maintain their own physical fitness in order to protect and provide for their families."

Top tips to prevent colds

  • Reduce your stress levels
  • Don't get over-tired
  • Take regular exercise
  • Avoid cigarette smoke
  • Eat a healthy, wholefood diet containing at least five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Avoid people during the early stages of a cold, especially when they're coughing and sneezing
  • Drink green tea - its antioxidants may help protect against viral infections
  • Put a few drops of peppermint or tea tree essential oils in a diffuser to scent a room and help keep coughs and colds at bay
  • Think positively - studies show that a positive attitude can boost immunity and reduce the risk of infections
  • Laugh your symptoms away - those who laugh regularly seem to be healthier, and also have fewer infections than those that are eaten up with anger and hostility

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