The (Very Few) Upsides to Childhood Illnesses

CNN/ Newswire | 10/19/2015, 10:02 a.m.
It's that time of year when nobody, especially children, seems to stay healthy.
A new trend among some parents to avoid the chickenpox vaccine for their kids is to buy mail-order lollipops already sucked on by sick kids. They hope their child will get chickenpox and then develop a natural immunity. Pictured: child with chickenpox

By Carina Storrs

Special to CNN

(CNN) -- It's that time of year when nobody, especially children, seems to stay healthy.

Of course, nobody likes to be sick, and there's no question that children should be vaccinated and spared scourges such as measles, whooping cough and diphtheria. For common diseases for which there are no vaccines, such as strep throat, parents should try to protect their children from exposure by keeping them away from infected individuals.

But are there some diseases that might actually be good for children to get? Viruses or bacteria that cause only mild infection in young people, but give them immunity from the same or more serious infections later in life?

The answer is yes, but the list is short. The common cold and ear infections may be among the not so bad -- and possibly even good -- illnesses.

"It's not good for children to get most infections," said Neal Halsey, pediatrician and professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But we do understand that trying to protect them from all infections is not necessarily beneficial to the child, because there is some pretty good evidence now that the hygiene hypothesis is correct."

This hypothesis posits that children who grow up without exposure to common bacteria and viruses in the environment could be more likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.

However, experts argue that even bugs that cause seemingly harmless infection are not always so benign.

"I've seen children develop devastating and even fatal disease from (cold and ear infections)," said Dr. Mark R. Schleiss, professor of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

"In all cases, it would be better to have a vaccine, and (the cold, ear infections, fifth disease) all have vaccines in research and development."

In the end, parents should try to protect their children from diseases, because in almost every case (except perhaps the cold), prevention is possible, even if there is no vaccine yet. But if your child gets sick, despite your best efforts, there could be some upsides.

The common cold

Nobody likes the runny nose, sneezing, fever and cough that come with the cold. Preschool-age children and kindergartners get about nine to 12 colds a year, respectively, compared with teens and adults, who get about seven. "You don't want to try to protect your child against every common cold because you can't," Halsey said.

On the bright side, the recurring sniffles that inevitably plague young children do help prevent sickness when they are older. We develop immunity against the cold virus when we are infected and that keeps us from getting sick with the same virus again, at least for a few years.

Sadly, though, we will probably never be totally immune to the common cold. There are about 200 different strains of viruses -- many of which are a type of rhinovirus or adenovirus -- that cause the cold. So while we may get fewer colds as we age, there are probably still some out there that can get us.