They Call it the COMMON Cold for a Reason

Dear Mamas,
I’ve been hearing a lot of conflicting stuff about how to treat cold symptoms in small children. We have two kids, ages 3 months and 22 months, and it seems like someone’s nose is ALWAYS running. Recently, my neighbor told me that I shouldn’t be using over-the-counter cold medicines because they’re not safe. Is this true? Should I be taking them to the doctor for antibiotics? What’s the best thing to do?

Tired of Tissues

Dear Tired,

It’s not just you. This is a confusing subject. Your neighbor is referring to a recent change in the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Common over-the-counter cold medicines, like Dimetapp, Pediacare, etc. have been shown to be dangerous for some children under 5, even at the correct dosage. The problem is, there is no way to tell which children will react badly. At best, these formulas help to treat only the cold symptoms. They do nothing to cure the illness or shorten its duration. Because of this, the risk of harm outweighs the benefit for babies and toddlers. So what can you do to help your little guys feel better? First, a bit of background.

The common cold is caused by a virus. Most often, one called adenovirus. The tiny virus particles are spread from person to person on hands and droplets through the air following coughs and sneezes. They attach to the cells lining the nose and upper airways, causing mucous, inflammation, coughs and sneezes, with or without a bit of fever. Your average toddler will catch from 5 – 12 colds per year! Yup, that’s up to 1 per month. The virus does not respond to antibiotics, so the pink bubblegum stuff (amoxicillin) and its relatives won’t help you here. Which leaves us with those old-fashioned remedies our grandmothers swore by.

First, lots of fluids; and here’s the medical explanation: Fluids really do help to flush the bad stuff out. The better hydrated a child is, the thinner and less sticky the mucous will be. It will be coughed up and drained out more easily. And don’t worry if your little guy tends to snort and swallow, rather than blow. Blowing the nose is a pretty complex skill, and most kids don’t like to do it. Mucous is mostly protein and water … it won’t hurt him a bit, though some kids may get nauseated if they swallow too much.

For babies, you can try a soft rubber bulb syringe. This looks like a tiny turkey baster, and can be used to gently suck mucous out of the nose. Most babies don’t enjoy this, and will fight you if they’re big and strong enough. Remember, you’re just trying to relieve symptoms here, so if your little guy is crying loudly while you’re doing this, it may be making matters worse.

Keep the air moist, particularly in the bedroom. Cool mist humidifiers work well. Stay away from steam humidifiers, which can cause serious burns, and don’t forget that medicinal chicken soup. There are good reasons why all ethnic groups have some form of it. It works. And so does any comfort food that feels good. If there’s fever above 100.5, and it seems to be making your child uncomfortable, you can give children’s Tylenol according to the dosage instructions.

Now the good news: The cold should run its course in 7 – 10 days with or without remedies. If it lingers much longer see your pediatrician. Your child may have allergies or a secondary bacterial infection. Have it checked out. As children get older, they catch fewer colds. This is because the body “recognizes” all the cold viruses it has seen before and becomes immune to those. That’s why adults catch fewer colds than children, and why you may not catch a cold from your child, in spite of handling all those tissues and kissing that snotty face. Your body has seen this one before.

Finally, no matter what your mother told you, you do not catch a cold by being cold. Or by walking barefoot, or by going outside with wet hair in the winter. Medical research has shown conclusively that the only way to catch a cold is through contact with the virus from an infected person. I know you may not believe that, because my own mother doesn’t, but it’s the truth!.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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