Millions of parents could get more convenient and timelier expert advice by visiting their local pharmacist first, which will also ease pressure on GP surgeries and hospital A&Es.
The first line of defence is a healthy lifestyle including a healthy diet, enough sleep, plenty of exercise, which help to guard against germ spread. Several micronutrients play a part in the immune system. But micronutrient intakes of children and teenagers are of significant concern. Vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E and folic acid and the trace elements iron, zinc, copper and selenium work in synergy to support the protective activities of the immune cells and the majority of these nutrients are also important for antibody production.
Overall, inadequate intake of these vitamins and trace elements may lead to reduced immune function. Given that UK food and diet surveys show that children and young people’s intakes of micronutrients may fall below recommended levels, an all-round multivitamin supplement appropriate to the age of the child or youngster may be recommended.
Similarly, omega-3 fatty acids, the most bioavailable of which is found in oily fish, are important throughout the lifespan. Demand for omega-3s starts in the womb and continues throughout infancy and childhood. It remains high during the teens as brain synapse and frontal lobe development continues until the mid-twenties.
Children’s intakes have risen — possibly in response to increased awareness of the benefits of omega-3 — but they remain stubbornly below recommended intakes. Youngsters aged 18 months to 10 years old eat an average of 13g of fish a week, and 11- to 18-year olds manage just 29g a week, well below the recommended intake of 140g weekly.
A Swedish double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial in 154 children found that a specific formulation of omega3/omega 6 contained in Equazen lifted reading scores in all children whether or not they had a reading difficulty. A further peer-reviewed study in children with ADHD found that when the prescription medicine – methylphenidate – and the Equazen supplement were given in combination children required lower doses of the prescription medicine and suffered far fewer side effects.
Second-hand smoke increases a child’s risk of respiratory and ear infections. Respiratory problems are also associated with poor air quality and indoor pollution. Children are at greater risk because they breathe in more air, in proportion to their bodyweight than adults. Recent evidence has shown that well-targeted essential oils can reduce the impact of chemical indoor pollutants and common airborne infections.
Meningococcal disease describes two major illnesses – meningitis and septicaemia. Men B is the most common form in the UK but other strains include MenA, MenC, MenW and MenY which commonly cause disease. About 10 per cent of the population carries meningococcal bacteria in their throats at any given time but this does not usually cause illness and helps to develop immunity. However, the bacteria can sometimes cause infection.
The pharmacy team can help by raising awareness that:
- Meningococcal is potentially a life-threatening infection; up to 10% of cases will result in death.
- Meningococcal bacteria are passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and intimate kissing. Meningococcal disease affects all age groups, but babies, young children, teenagers and young adults are at a higher risk.
- A risk factor for teenagers and young adults is increased social interaction as they mix closely with lots of new people
- Specific symptoms associated with infection and inflammation of the meninges) are: severe headache, dislike of bright lights, neck stiffness, nausea and vomiting, confusion and drowsiness, loss of consciousness and seizures
- Meningococcal disease needs urgent treatment with antibiotics and rapid admission to hospital. It is vital to spot potential symptom as fast as possible. Many people who contract meningococcal disease make a good recovery but some will suffer physical and neurological after effects
- A MenB vaccine, to protect against meningococcal group B disease, was introduced into the routine immunisation schedule in September 2015. A total of three doses are given at 2, 4 and 12 months of age. The vaccine is also available on the NHS for a small number of children (and adults) who are at increased risk of meningococcal infection, including those with no spleen or those who have a disorder of the immune system called complement deficiency. It is also possible to obtain this vaccine privately.
- Teenagers and students going to university for the first time are offered the MenACWY vaccine. See this website (www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/men-acwy-vaccine) for vaccine schedules.
Medical herbalist Dr Chris Etheridge from Health & Food Supplements Information Service contributed to this piece, which also appears in the July issue of Pharmacy Business.