Family Stress and Fevers in Children

According to a recent report, children exposed to chronic family stresses due to frequent fights, violence or problems associated with job loss are at increased risk of illness, especially those causing fever. Johns Hopkins and University of Rochester researchers followed 169 children aged 5-10 for three years, during which stress related symptoms, febrile diseases and total illnesses were recorded every six months. Children also had blood tests every six months to evaluate natural killer cell activity, a measure of the immune system’s response to infection. Parental psychiatric symptoms like depression, anxiety and dysfunctional behavior, as well as how successfully they handled responsibilities and relationships with their children, were rated on the 51-item Brief Symptom Inventory. Parents also reported on external events such as exposure to violence and unemployment that caused family stress as assessed by the Stressful Life Events checklist.
The results revealed that elevated family stress was associated with an 11% increase in total illnesses and a 36% increase in those that caused fevers, compared to children living in families with little stress. Most of these were due to upper respiratory tract infections (159), followed by gastrointestinal tract infections (51), and sinus infections (25). Elevated parental psychiatric symptoms occurring with family stressors were also associated with more total illnesses and febrile illnesses. Natural killer cell activity was increased in children whose parents reported more chronic family stress. Previous research had linked impaired parental function and family stress to negative effects on children’s emotional and social functioning. This study broadens these observations to include objective health and biological indicators that demonstrate a possible negative effect on immunity and susceptibility to illness in children. The authors also suggest that impaired parental functioning may be an important mechanism that explains the link between increased family stress with adverse effects on children’s health.

Reference: Wyman PA, Moynihan J, et al. Association of Family Stress With Natural Killer Cell Activity and the Frequency of Illnesses in Children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007; 161:228-234.