Dr Mark Rosenthal

MD MB ChB FRCP FRCPCH BSc

Consultant in Paediatric Respiratory Medicine

also specialist in Food Allergies & Disorders of Sleep

A | A | A

T: 0207 351 8832

E: s.harvey@rbht.nhs.uk

A:The Royal Brompton Hospital, London, SW3 6NP

Can Infections Be Good for Children?

It is difficult to see the positive side of bacterial or viral infection in children when you are dealing with runny noses, vomiting and crankiness. However, the infections that we have as children may actually have some benefits for our health.

  • Childhood infections help our immune systems to develop. We learn to recognise the infections and produce antibodies against them so that if we encounter them in the future, we will be able to get rid of them before they can cause any problems. For example, you won’t catch the same type of flu twice.
  • Being infected with one virus can sometimes help our bodies to recognise and respond to similar viruses in the future. An extreme example of this is that the first vaccines using cowpox virus were able to protect against smallpox infections. A more common example is that the strains of flu we catch in early childhood can determine how easy it is for us to beat similar strains in the future, even though they can’t provide complete immunity.
  • A mild bacterial or viral infection in children can sometimes protect against more severe infections later in life. For example, ear infections are often caused by pneumococcal bacteria, which are also often responsible for pneumonia. Developing immunity to a mild ear infection could protect against a serious chest infection in the future.
  • Some common childhood infections such as chickenpox can be more serious if you catch them later in life, so it can be better to have them early on (or to get the vaccination if one is available).
  • Children who aren’t exposed to bacteria and viruses are more likely to develop allergies and autoimmune problems. Early exposure to viral infection in children could also help to protect against leukaemia, a form of cancer linked to the immune system.

However, it is important to remember that even though childhood infections can help our immune systems to develop they can also cause serious symptoms and potentially life threatening complications. Getting vaccinated and practicing good hygiene to avoid infection is much better for your child than exposing them to these risks. Most children will still catch plenty of coughs and colds, but they will hopefully avoid the more serious diseases.