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Got Kids? Got Coughs. Viruses Thrive in Big Families

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Got Kids? Got Coughs. Viruses Thrive in Big Families

Aug 04, 2015

It’s no secret that kids get sick- a lot, but a study led by faculty at the University of Utah School of Medicine shows that they are also a source of viral infections for the rest of the family. People in childless households were infected with viruses that cause cold and flu for 3-4 weeks during the year. By contrast, families with six children were infected for up to 45 weeks – 87 percent of the year. Dr. Carrie Byington, professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Utah Center for Clinical and Translational Science talks about the findings and what they mean for families and physicians. The results were published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. Learn More about the study.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: The bigger the family, the more likely they are to get sick. More about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research Show is on the Scope.

Interviewer: I'm talking to Dr. Carrie Byington, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Utah and Co-Director of the Utah Center for Clinical and Translational Science. You and your team have published a study in the journal, "Clinical Infectious Disease" monitoring how often families or households are infected with virus. Some of your findings are really striking.

Dr. Byington: We're really excited to publish our findings on the study that we call the BIG LoVE Study, which stands for Better Identification of Germs-Longitudinal Viral Epidemiology Studies. And we've found that individuals who are living alone had a virus detected in their nose between three and four weeks out of the year. When we looked at families with six children living in the household, a virus was detected in the house 87% of the weeks. Almost the entire year

Interviewer: Oh, my gosh.

Dr. Byington:
someone had a virus in the household. So as a pediatrician, it helps me a lot to be able to talk with families who come in and say, "Someone's always sick in the household." And in fact, that's true.

Interviewer: There it is.

Dr. Byington: And it's probably fairly normal. And so that helps us in our practice to be able to reassure families, are they seeing something normal or is their child having more infections than they should be having? And that's a common question I get as a pediatrician.

Interviewer: With each additional child in the family does the amount that that family's infected with virus increase?

Dr. Byington: Having one child changes your risks quite a bit as a household. And you go from having virus in the household from about 7% of the time to about a third of the time, you'll have virus in the household. But, for those families that have two, three, or four children, the risk of virus was fairly constant within the household, about 50% of the weeks. After you passed the threshold of four children, so families with five and six children, we saw another sharp increase in the number of viruses.

Interviewer: And so is it the kids that are bringing the virus into the household?

Dr. Byington: In many cases, yes, it looks like it is the child that's bringing the virus. And especially the very young child. I think it would not be a surprise to parents who have children younger than five that they are commonly infected with a virus. And we've found that in our group that children younger than five had a virus in their nose 50% of the week. One out of every two weeks, they had a virus in their nose.

That, for me, again, as a pediatrician and an investigator is very, very interesting. On the one hand, I'd like to find ways to prevent people from getting sick and to interrupt the transmission, like giving them the flu vaccine to protect them. But on the other hand, I'm very interested in finding out whether there is a benefit to getting certain viruses at certain times during our lives. And I think that that's something

Interviewer: Oh, interesting.

Dr. Byington:
that we can really begin to explore with the data that we've collected. We're learning more and more in the field of infectious diseases about the microbiome and bacteria that we have in our system that may be beneficial to us. And I think we're also going to be learning about the virome, about the virus that we have and carry. How do those viruses interact with the bacteria in our microbiome? How do they interact with our own immune system?

Interviewer: So being infected with virus as a child might be a good thing?

Dr. Byington: Yes, in many cases, I think it can be a good thing. And it can often serve as almost an immunization, if you will, to protect you down the line. But I don't think that we yet know which viruses and which order is important. That's what some of these studies are going to begin to help us do.

Interviewer: And it also might be hard to convince parents of that when it becomes inconvenient to keep kids home from school and things like that.

Dr. Byington: Absolutely. And we need to try to understand how often that's going to happen. And I would say for parents of young children, they can be assured that they're going to have six to seven viral respiratory illnesses each year, their children will have those, and that's quite normal. And they as parents will also get to share in some of those viral illnesses.

Interviewer: So parents of children, are they sick more often than other adults that do not have children?

Dr. Byington: Yes. We did find that in our study. And we found an interesting age breakdown. So parents of younger children, so those in the ages of 18 to 39, were nearly twice as likely to have viruses as older parents who were over the age of 40. So again, the younger parents may have had more exposure through their young children, but maybe the also developed better immunity during that period of time that protected them when they were older than the age of 40. So it's interesting.

Interviewer: Yeah, very interesting. What can we do with this information? What can families do with this information and what can healthcare providers do?

Dr. Byington: Well, I think what this information really does for both families and for healthcare providers is say what's normal, what is the baseline for normal. When should I relax and say this is just what I have to go through in the first two to three years of my child's life and when do I have to be more concerned? It also helps us to know which viruses are really associated with mild illness and which viruses may often result in needing medical care. And so, as a clinician, as a pediatrician, it helps me say which viruses would be really important to focus on for vaccines to try to prevent more serious consequences.

Announcer: Interesting, informative and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.