I took the kids to the doctor yesterday – they've been sick on and off all winter. After listening to their chests, she started asking all these questions about our apartment and our habits. Is there mould in the bathroom or under the kitchen sink? Do we keep the heat on a night? Do the kids share a bed? I just wanted her to prescribe something for the boy's cough, not interrogate me about our living conditions.
Colds, flu, coughing, wheezing and asthma attacks. When children come back over and over again with these symptoms, doctors are quickly on alert that the underlying cause might be a cold home. And they know well that what might seem like minor irritations can have long-term impacts.
Like most parents, those struggling with fuel poverty tend to put their children first. In fact, they will often set aside their own needs, including foregoing meals and putting extra heaters in kids' rooms while limiting themselves to extra blankets, to reduce their own impact on the family budget.
But they may not recognise the signs that their kids are more often sick from being at home than from mixing with other kids at school. Understanding why kids are more vulnerable to cold is a first step: their small size actually means they lose more body heat to cold air, and thus are likely to be colder than an adult in the same temperature. The effect is further amplified in a cool or cold bath.
Similarly, less developed immune systems do leave children open to contracting more illnesses in public places, which means they may bring home more bugs to share with siblings. This can create a cumulative effect, as they are also more susceptible to being affected by things like mould in the home. The combination can become something of a vicious circle. Kids already a bit sick from their homes are at greater risk for getting more sick in public.
Taking steps to reduce heat loss from windows and doors, and attacking persistent mould with specially formulated cleaning products can provide some relief in the short term. Signing up for available assistance through retrofit schemes is a more effective way to get to the root of the problem. Moreover, in addition to improving child health and well-being through greater warmth, such schemes typically reduce energy bills, leaving more funds available in the family budget for other necessities.
Getting help early can be a life-long investment in the future of one's children.