It's miserable to watch your child suffer through the six to 10 colds she's likely to catch this year. And to make matters worse, experts now say that kids under 6 shouldn't use over-the-counter cold and cough medicine because of potentially dangerous side effects. So what's a concerned parent to do? We asked experts to tell us how to help fend off germs in the first place and how to help her feel better fast if she does get sick.
Everything in this slideshow
Kids miss nearly 22 million school days each year due to colds. Though you can't protect your child from every virus she encounters, these healthy habits can increase her resistance.
Make sure she catches enough zzz's. If your child is tired all the time, her immune system may be too sluggish to fight off bad bugs. Unfortunately, a third of all kids don't get as much sleep as they should. Ideally, babies need up to 18 hours a day, toddlers and preschoolers need 12 to 14 hours, and grade-schoolers should get 10 to 11 hours. It's probably not practical for your child to wake up later, so if she's not hitting these numbers, make her bedtime earlier.
Wash hands frequently
Practically 80 percent of infectious diseases, including the common cold, are spread through touch, so it's crucial for your child to wash his hands a lot. To make sure he scrubs for enough time, have him sing a verse of "Old MacDonald" while he lathers up both sides of his hands and between his fingers. Alcohol-based hand wipes or sanitizers are good options for when you're on the go.
Keep your home clean
Once one person in the family catches a cold, be extra careful about cleaning so no one else gets sick too. It's a challenge: Viruses can live for up to two hours on things like cups, countertops, and towels, so disinfect frequently touched areas and objects with bleach or antibacterial wipes. "Germs linger on TV remotes, video-game controllers, refrigerator-door handles, and doorknobs," says Daniel Frattarelli, MD, a member of the AAP's Committee on Drugs. Show your child how to sneeze and cough into the crook of her elbow, not her hands, so she's less likely to spread germs around the house. Use paper cups in the bathroom, separate toothbrushes to keep them from touching, and never share glasses, plates, or utensils.
Cough and Sore Throats
Coughing helps your child breathe better by clearing mucus from her airways, so don't try to stop it. "Cough suppressants may actually be harmful: They make some kids hyperactive, dizzy, and restless at bedtime," says Catherine Tom-Revzon, PharmD, pediatrics clinical pharmacy manager at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York City. Nonetheless, all that hacking can leave your kid's throat irritated. Before the FDA's recent warning, about one in 10 children took cold or cough medicine in a given week. Now that these medications are out for infants and toddlers, and questionable for older kids, try some of these safer alternatives.
Provide sweet relief. Recent studies show that honey is better than cough medicine for relieving coughs and helping a sick child sleep better. "Honey is safe for children age 1 and older, and kids are happy to take it because it tastes good," says researcher Ian Paul, MD, a member of the AAP's clinical pharmacology and therapeutics committee. Dark honeys, such as buckwheat, may work best because they're higher in antioxidants. Give half a teaspoon to children ages 1 to 5 years and one teaspoon to kids ages 6 to 11. But never give honey to babies younger than 1; they can get botulism from bacteria in it.
Warm or very cold liquids thin out mucus, making it easier to cough up. Plus, liquids soothe a raw throat and keep kids hydrated. Have your child drink ice water, cold or warm juice, or decaffeinated tea mixed with honey.
Offer something to suck on
Children age 4 and older can suck on sore throat or cough lozenges, sugar-free hard candies, or even frozen berries. A Popsicle or crushed ice are great choices for a younger kid with a scratchy throat.
Stuffy or Runny Nose
You may be going through a lot of tissues, but all that mucus helps wash the cold virus out of your child's nose and sinuses. Don't panic if you notice his mucus changing from clear to yellow to green: It's a sign that his immune system is fighting off the virus; it doesn't mean he needs antibiotics.
Give her nose a squirt. Loosen up clogged mucus with a few drops of saline solution, then suck it out with a suction bulb.
Moisten the air
Keep a cool-mist humidifier in your child's room to help ease stuffiness. (Warm-mist humidifiers and vaporizers are scalding hazards.) Bacteria and mold grow quickly, so change the water daily and thoroughly clean the unit, following the manufacturer's instructions. Another good option: Have your child sit in a steamy bathroom or take a warm shower.
Prop her up
Elevate your child's head with an extra pillow at night so mucus can drain. For babies, raise the head of the crib mattress by placing a wedge or pillow under the mattress.
If your child's temp is up, it's a sign that his immune system is working hard to fight the cold bugs -- so it's best to let a fever run its course unless he seems uncomfortable. The exception: If your baby is under 3 months and has a fever of 100.4 degrees F. or higher, call your doctor. Fever in a baby can be dangerous.
Give him a bath. A five-minute sponge bath in lukewarm water can help your kid feel cooler and can lower his temperature.
Try fever reducers
Ibuprofen or acetaminophen should bring down your child's fever and ease body aches, but don't overdo it. According to a recent study from Johns Hopkins Children's Center, most parents don't wait the recommended length of time between dosages and end up overmedicating their feverish kids. Always give acetaminophen -- not ibuprofen -- to infants younger than 6 months, and never give aspirin to children. It can cause a rare, sometimes fatal illness called Reye's syndrome.
Keep her hydrated
Your child loses more water when her body's fighting a fever, so make sure you offer her plenty of fluids to keep her from becoming dehydrated. Try oral rehydration solutions; they contain a mixture of water and salt that helps kids replenish fluids and electrolytes.
The Scoop on Zinc and Vitamin C
Studies in the past have found that two of the most popular natural remedies for colds -- vitamin C and zinc -- don't actually prevent colds or reduce their symptoms. One study showed that zinc may be helpful when swabbed directly on nasal passages, but you might want to hold off on trying it on your own family until more testing is done. Adult consumers who reportedly lost their sense of smell and taste after swabbing their nose with Zicam zinc gel swabs initiated a lawsuit. The makers of Zicam settled it in 2006 without admitting any wrongdoing.
Breathe Right Kids Nasal Strips
These adhesive strips gently lift nasal passages so that your child can breathe better at night.
Originally published in the January 2009 issues of Parents magazine.
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