The dreaded first cold hits just as your baby adopts a routine sleeping and feeding schedule. There's no avoiding it. Although babies are born with some of their mothers' immunity to illness -- which is enhanced by breastfeeding -- they're not completely protected against the ever-changing collection of viruses that cause upper respiratory infections. This means that most healthy babies will get six to eight colds before their first birthday. On a positive note, they will help your child begin to build up immunity of his own.
For many new parents, the real concern is deciding if their baby has just a cold -- or something more serious. Take a deep breath and face this challenge. You'll see it's easy to figure out once you know the signs.
The common cold comes on slowly and lasts about nine days. I find it helpful to break the cycle down into three days coming, three days here, and three days going.
Now that you know what the typical cold looks like, let's talk about the flu. It usually peaks from November through March, often for a few weeks at a time. Children can be contagious a day before symptoms start and for as long as they show them, which can be for up to two weeks.
Flu symptoms in older kids and adults are very specific and include:
Preschoolers can say when their arms and legs hurt, and it's clear that your normally active child doesn't feel well when he won't get off the couch. However, these symptoms are harder to detect in babies and toddlers. Here are some guidelines: A cold comes on slowly over a few days, but the flu hits fast, sometimes within a few hours. The fever will last more than one or two days, and your child might not look much better after it breaks. You'll also see a big decrease in his activity level and appetite, and coughing will be worse than with colds. Babies and toddlers can also experience diarrhea and vomiting. If you think your kid has the flu, call his doctor.
The simple truth: There is no quick fix for a cold or the flu. Antibiotics aren't effective against viruses, and antiviral drugs for some influenza strains aren't approved for babies. Plus, a growing body of research suggests that decongestants and combination decongestant-antihistamine products are not very effective in children, who can also experience side effects, such as jitteriness or difficulty sleeping. Most pediatricians don't recommend these medications for babies, and many are now advising parents to use them minimally for all kids. Nonprescription cough suppressants and expectorants have also been shown to have little effect on coughs linked to colds in kids, and experts advise against their use in children under age 14.
To prevent influenza, babies should receive a flu shot at 6 months, then a booster four weeks later and an annual shot until age 5. And whether your child has a cold or the flu, she still needs to feel comfortable.
Moreover, these surefire strategies will help you bottle- and breastfeed more smoothly because baby will be able to breathe better and will be less likely to fuss. And when you want to help your child sleep soundly when he's sick, raise the head of the crib (by placing a rolled towel or books under the mattress), or prop toddlers and preschoolers up in bed with extra pillows. This helps mucus drain more freely away from the lungs.
In the end, it's the simple things, such as lots of fluids, that can make kids feel better. And don't forget chicken soup -- there is actually some research that suggests this time-honored remedy may help to reduce inflammation and thin mucus during a cold. But, of course, moms don't need scientific proof of that.
Here are some clues:
Q. My toddler is miserable when sick. Is there an antidote to this?
A. If only such an elixir existed, but the notion that echinacea, vitamin C, or zinc can wipe away the sniffles is no truer than the bedtime stories you read to your kids. In fact, studies of adults and children have found that vitamin C doesn't prevent or treat the common cold even when taken at the onset of symptoms. Nor does echinacea lessen the duration or severity of a cold. Even the claim that zinc can reduce cold symptoms doesn't stand up in controlled studies.
So when a friend says that she swears by one of these alternative remedies, trust that scientific research has so far shown otherwise. And if you're still contemplating giving your child these supplements and wonder what harm can they do, think again. Possible adverse side effects: nasal applications of zinc might affect one's sense of smell; concentrated vitamin C can upset the stomach and lead to diarrhea; and echinacea causes rashes in some kids.
Mary Ann LoFrumento, MD, is an attending physician at Goryeb Children's Hospital, in Morristown, New Jersey, and is the founder of simplyparenting.com.
Originally published in American Baby magazine.
The information is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.