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Why Is Everyone So Afraid of Sick Kids?

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Photograph by Twenty20

It's that time of year when everyone in my family has what I call perma-cold—where snot settles into our noses, our throats feel sore every morning, everyone is coughing, and we always seem on the brink of some sort of illness or another.

Recently, a friend shared with me a Facebook meme that reminded mothers not to send their children to school if they were coughing, sneezing, had a runny nose or a fever. The fever gets no beef from me, but coughing? Sneezing? A runny nose? With that logic my kids wouldn't attend school November through April.

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Illness is a touchy subject. I've been in situations when friends have canceled playdates and outings because of a cough. My brother-in-law gets upset every time one of his nieces or nephew's sniffles because, "Now I'm going to get sick!" Perhaps it is because I grew up with seven brothers and sisters, and illness seemed as inevitable as the sunrise, but I don't understand the squeamishness about getting sick.

Yeah, children are little bombs of biological and germ warfare, but so what? Why is getting sick such a big deal?

When my daughter woke up vomiting on Thanksgiving Day, I sent text messages warning our guest that she had fallen victim to a virus, but were still welcome to come over. They all came. We had a lovely time. And if you ask my daughter about that day, she speaks of it in wonder: "I got sick and I got to play with the iPad all day! And I got juice!"

I understand that there are children with immune deficiencies. My younger brother is special needs and for the first several years of his life contracting a simple cold meant he would get pneumonia and have to spend every four hours using the nebulizer. I spent many hours holding him in my lap, singing him songs and helping him breathe. This article is not about that. This article is about normal healthy people who avoid children and all child situations because of possible contagion.

And yeah, children are little bombs of biological and germ warfare, but so what? Why is getting sick such a big deal?

Ultimately, moderate cases of the cold or stomach viruses pose no real health danger and in fact this exposure can be better for them in the long run. A 2002 University of Arizona study found that children ages 6 to 11 who spent their time in large daycare centers were sick less often than children who were kept at home.

Of course, studies also show that children who are in care centers get colds at earlier ages, but that exposure seems to have no long-term ill effects. In fact, some experts argue that we are keeping kids too clean and too healthy and we aren't giving them time to develop antibodies and antigens to the normal germs and bacteria that they will encounter in daily life.

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Moderate and early exposure to germs trains the immune system to respond effectively later in life. Some would take away from this that the logical conclusion is to avoid vaccinations. I'm not suggesting that. Nobody wants polio or the whooping cough.

But what I am suggesting is that perhaps our fear of illness and germs have gone too far. We want to isolate children with runny noses and coughs to the detriment of their parents and their own education. What working parent can afford to keep their kid home every time she wakes up with a snotty nose? It is a hassle, especially for parents whose jobs don't give them time off. Often work provides time off in name only, but taking it can exact a lasting professional toll on mothers and fathers.

So free the germs! By which I mean, free the snotty-nose kids, those little disease bundles who are working on keeping us healthy in the long run.

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