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Alternative, Conventional, Complementary Medicine... What's the Difference?


The lingo can get overwhelming, so let's break down what the different terms mean.


Having a sick kid can make a parent sick with worry. You want to do everything in your power to make a cold go away, and often that means you start by poking around on the internet for answers.

But message boards can be notoriously confusing, with opinions coming from every possible direction, as well-intentioned strangers recommend the best way to treat a cold (not to mention that asking your friends on social media often comes with even more ideas). Should you turn to conventional medicine? What about holistic medicine? Complementary medicine? Alternative medicine? What even is the difference between them? Is your head spinning?

First, let's define the different terms, then discuss what you can do if your child comes down with the common cold — and what to do if you catch a cold from them.

Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine is also known in the U.S. by the terms “Western,” “mainstream,” or “standard medicine.” When you think of the type of care practiced in American hospitals or in many doctor’s offices—prescription or recommended over-the-counter medications, lab tests, surgeries—that's conventional medicine. Its treatments are backed by scientific research and practitioners rely on a scientific knowledge of the body. So when you have a cough, a great conventional treatment to try would be an OTC medicine like Children’s Robitussin Honey Cough & Chest Congestion DM (for kids age 4 and up) and Robitussin Honey Cough & Chest Congestion DM (for adults). Both will help relieve symptoms like coughing and congestion so you can rest up, and they both also contain 19.2% natural, grade-A honey.

Alternative Medicine

Entirely outside the scope of conventional medicine lies alternative medicine, which is defined as a non-conventional practice used in place of conventional medicine. Say, for example, you decide to forgo mainstream treatment for the flu, like an antiviral from your doctor, in favor of a homeopathic one, like a neti pot. That would be considered alternative medicine. Other examples include traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, massage therapy, and the use of natural products like herbs and probiotics. And while many of these treatments are “natural,” they can still have side effects.

Complementary Medicine

You end up with complementary medicine when you bring together conventional treatments with those that are considered alternative. (So using the above example, taking a migraine pill and trying acupuncture.) The shorthand you'll most likely see is CAM, which stands for complementary and alternative medicine, but you might also see the term “integrative health” in this context. CAM might be used when a strictly conventional treatment does not result in a complete cure or leads to side effects.

Holistic Medicine

The idea of holistic medicine is that you're treating more than simply the body and thinking about the whole person—including their spirituality, psychology, and even beyond to family and environment.

How Do I Apply This to a Cold?

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for the common cold. For most people, the sickness will run its course and resolve on its own, but if you notice more serious signs, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, consult a doctor. Whether it’s you or your child who’s sick, getting plenty of rest and fluids is important. You’ll be back to using the internet for its best purpose — sharing cute pics of your kids on social media! — before you know it.