Wondering how to cure a pesky cold? Try one of these game-changing strategies, which were crowdsourced from more than 100 doctors in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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mom hugging daughter kitchen table with kleenex
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Whether it's cold and flu season or not, every parent needs these tips from pediatricians when it comes to curing stuffy, sneezy noses. Steal these tricks for helping your kid get over a cold, plus get the numbers on the most popular types of cold remedies.

Tip #1: Act at first sneeze

As soon as they suspect a cold may be brewing ( just call it doctor-mom’s intuition), 60 percent of our panelists spring into action. So what happens next? Pushing fluids (usually water) and canceling optional plans.

“We skip soccer and playdates and get to bed early,” says Erika Crane, M.D., a pediatrician in Grand Rapids. “While there may be some initial grumbling, when my daughter’s not feeling well, she really craves a break.” Another trick: precautionary pain relief. “If my child wakes up and is not acting like herself, I’ll give her ibuprofen to make her feel more comfortable and to ward off worse symptoms,” says Patricia Quigley, M.D., a pediatric hospitalist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Tip #2: Befriend honey

The sticky-sweet goo is a must-have if your child has a sore throat or a cough. In fact, of all the cold remedies our panelists use with their own kids, this one seemed to come up most frequently. Many moms serve it straight up in a spoon or mix it into a cup of warm water (or electrolyte-enhanced water), but some get creative.

Tara Doman, M.D., a pediatrician in Naperville, Illinois, mixes honey into decaf  lemon tea along with a splash of cranberry juice. Tamika Bush, D.O., a holistic integrative pediatrician for PureGKids in Houston, adds grated ginger to every honey spoonful. “Both ginger and honey—I like to serve manuka honey—have antibacterial and antiviral properties that induce overall healing in the body,” she says.

Keep in mind: Honey is off-limits for babies under age 1, and a middle-of-the-night honey dose ideally should be followed by teeth brushing, says Rachel Coel, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric specialist at The Queen’s Medical Center, in Honolulu.

Tip #3: Try natural remedies, but be choosy

If you assume doctors prefer over-the-counter drugs, surprise! An impressive 76 percent of our panelists say they use natural remedies, and their picks run the gamut from honey (obvi) to essential oils and more. Kara Wong Ramsey, M.D., a neonatologist at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children, in Honolulu, diffuses peppermint oil in her kids’ rooms during illnesses or puts some on her hands and then holds them above her sick child’s head as he breathes.

“All three of my kids like the smell and find it relaxing at bedtime,” she says. Another popular pick: elderberry syrup. Some moms give it preventively, while others dose it out to hasten cold recovery.

For ear pain, more than one panelist says she fills a cloth bag with rice or birdseed, heats it in the microwave, and holds it to her child’s ear. “In a pinch, you can also use an old-fashioned hot-water bottle,” says Michal Pankratz, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, in Lubbock. To soothe her child’s chapped skin and lips (a common side effect of frequent nose blowing), Teja Dyamenahalli, M.D., a pediatrician in Duluth, Minnesota, likes smearing on coconut oil or avocado oil. “Both work well as a natural barrier,” she says.

Tip #4: Get the boogers out

Pediatrician-moms don’t wait around for a sneeze—they get in there! More than 80 percent of our panelists use saline and nasal suction (what one doctor calls “the dynamic duo”) on their babies. The NoseFrida is the most beloved booger sucker by far. Just don’t use suction more than twice a day; overuse can injure the inside of your baby’s nostrils.

Graduated from snot sucking? Get blowing! “You can start teaching your kids to blow their nose at around 6 months. They should be solid at it by a year,” says Erin Teresa Kelly, M.D., a pediatrician and internist in Philadelphia. Saline nasal spray, steam (“Run a hot shower and sit in the bathroom,” advises Vanessa P. Scott, M.D., a pediatrician in San Diego), and saline nasal rinses are also super helpful.

Tip #5: Keep extra pillows on standby

When their child wakes up coughing or congested in the middle of the night, many panelists say they use extra pillows (for children over age 1) to elevate the head. Gravity helps open the airway, alleviating congestion, says Maria Beatriz Maidana-Moreno, M.D., a pediatrician in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Don’t worry: Tired kids can fall asleep even if they’re not lying flat.

Tip #6: When it comes to fever, treat the symptoms, not the temperature

Pediatrician-moms focus on how their child is acting, not on the number on the thermometer. There’s no hard rule for when to give an OTC pain reliever, so tune in to your child’s mood and behavior. If she seems miserable or can’t stay hydrated or rest comfortably, offer acetaminophen or ibuprofen. “Otherwise, I let the body’s immune system do its job,” says Jamaiya James, M.D., a pediatrician in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Resist the urge to run your child a lukewarm bath. You might think it will be cooling, but, in fact, the opposite is true. “Imagine that you set the thermostat in your house at 104 degrees, then you open all the doors and windows. Your furnace will have to work overtime to try to heat it up,” says Andrea Prasch, M.D., a pediatrician in Boise, Idaho.

The same thing happens when you put a feverish child in a cool bath, so keep the water nice and warm. Rubbing alcohol is also a major no-no. Although it might cool your child’s skin temporarily, it won’t bring down her internal temperature. Even worse: It can be absorbed into your child’s skin, potentially causing alcohol poisoning, says Ami Bax, M.D., medical director of the OU Child Study Center, in Oklahoma City.

Tip #7: Make hygiene entertaining

Jessica Lazerov, M.D., a pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center, in Washington, D .C., couldn’t get her kids to grasp the mechanics of coughing and sneezing into their elbow—until she realized the motion is similar to the dance move “the dab.” Once she reminded them of that, her kids nailed it, and now she uses this tactic to teach all her patients.

Rhonda Acholonu, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in Bronx, New York, used craft supplies to show her child’s preschool class how germs stick and spread. To try her method yourself, rub a glue stick on your child’s palm and pour glitter on top.

“Your child will see that some comes off when you stand up and try to shake it off, and more comes off when you rinse with water, but to get it all off, you need to use soap and scrub,” she says. To illustrate another way germs spread, Dr. Acholonu took a handful of colorful pom-poms and pretended to sneeze on them. As the art supplies scattered over the table, the kids saw that if you don’t cover your mouth, germs can travel all around the room.

Another way to up the fun: Let your child use a scrub brush and foaming soap to wash her hands. “It makes a fantastic mess but helps encourage them to wash those hands and keep germs away,” says Ruth Milanaik, D.O., a pediatrician at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York. And if your little one still insists on spreading mucus everywhere she goes? “Placing alcohol-based hand-sanitizer bottles around the house does the trick,” says Dr. Ramsey.

Tip #8: Relax screen-time rules

“I won’t lie—sick days are when we allow lots of Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” says Lauren Jen, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City. She’s far from alone. Not every doctor on our panel lets her kids zone out in front of the TV—a few even have rules about doing schoolwork and napping— but many give lots of leeway. “We often think that Mommy’s TLC is the best medicine, but research suggests that relaxing in front of a screen can release endorphins, which may make kids feel even better and more comforted,” says Nancy M. Silva, M.D., a pediatrician in Wesley Chapel, Florida.

One smart tip: Take a break from the TV every 30 minutes to see if quiet time will help your kid drift off to sleep, suggests Natasha Burgert, M.D., a pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri.

Tip #9: Don’t skimp

Most remedies work best when you use them liberally and vigilantly. Case in point: “Lots of Aquaphor or Vaseline for chapped lips,” says Alison Faber, D.O., a pediatrician in Beverly Hills. For congestion, “lots of nasal saline,” says Amanda Montalbano, M.D., clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Medicine. (Just don’t suction with every use.) And for every cold symptom under the sun, “lots of fluids!” says just about every mom on our panel.

Over-the-counter cough and cold medications are an exception. The AAP doesn’t recommend them for kids under age 4. If your child is between 4 and 6, check with your doctor first, as the risk of side effects outweighs the potential benefits. Pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen are safe, but don’t overuse them, and always give the correct dose at the recommended intervals. “There’s no reason to give a ‘little dose,’ ” says Dr. Montalbano.

Tip #10: When in doubt, hug it out

Every doctor-mom on our panel said extra hugs, kisses, and cuddles are a must. “Wash those dishes later and just hold them for a little bit,” says Tamar Nazerian Chorbadjian, D.O., a pediatrician in Los Angeles. “After all, they won’t be children forever.”

Cold Remedies by the Numbers infographic

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