Great Home Remedies for a Cold. Really.

It’s been some time since children’s cold remedies were yanked from store shelves as a result of concerns about safety and effectiveness. But young kids are still catching an average of 6-8 upper respiratory infections each year, so what’s a coughing, sneezing, dripping munchkin to do?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a third or more of them are turning to some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) to fill the gap. These ‘natural’ remedies (some are and some aren’t) are viewed as dietary supplements, not medicine, by the Food and Drug Administration and none are tested in children, so while many are useful and at least harmless, others deserve to be viewed with a healthy dose of caution.

Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies

The problem with evaluating most herbal and homeopathic products marketed for children is the shortage of real medical evidence pro or con. Echinacea and zinc, the two most studied supplements, have shown promising results with some important caveats.

Echinacea, when taken consistently over several weeks, has been found to be effective in preventing colds, though it has not been shown to be helpful in the treatment of current symptoms.

Zinc, when used in oral (lozenge or liquid) form, can shorten the time it takes to kick a cold and reduce the severity of symptoms, BUT (and this is a big one) the nasal swab form has been reported to cause damage to sensory cells in the nose, resulting in lost sense of smell that may be irreversible.

Homeopathic medicines work on the theory that a tiny, highly diluted dose of a natural substance that may be toxic in larger doses can stimulate the body’s natural immunity to fight off a cold. The science here can be iffy, with the ingredients sometimes so diluted as to be undetectable, and the effects unmeasurable. Most people assume that the small concentration of the dose makes them safe, but we don’t really know.

Since these products are not closely regulated, the labels can be misleading. Dosages may vary widely, and there’s no guarantee that you’re getting the herbal ingredients you think you are. Some so-called natural products have been found to be contaminated with lead, alcohol, and other substances that are highly toxic to children.

The take home message here is do your homework. Ask a health care professional you trust to recommend brands and products that are safe and effective. Read labels carefully and look for alcohol-free formulas with respected scientific endorsement.

For more information about specific brands, check out, an independent certification organization that tests these products for manufacturing quality and purity.

‘Kitchen Cabinet’ Remedies

Some of the cures Grandma recommended have been shown to help kiddo fight off uncomfortable symptoms without the risks of unproven ingredients.

Our favorite stand-by is traditional chicken soup, which is proven to reduce congestion and speed recovery. Load it up with nutrition-packed veggies and whole grain noodles to get the most bang for your buck. Placebo effect? Maybe, but we’re sticking with the research results that show real benefits.

Vitamin D has recently been highlighted as a proven infection fighter that most kids don’t get enough of. Sunlight and dairy products are good sources, and when in doubt multivitamins can help.

Fluids, fluids, and more fluids really do make a huge difference. They flush out mucous and keep those infectious particles moving. To avoid overloading them with sugary fruit juice, dilute their favorites with water in a 50% mixture. If they balk, take a gradual approach, watering the juice down a little more with each serving. Works every time.

Make sure your sniffling, sneezing little one gets plenty of sleep. Tissue repair and immune activity increase during sleep, so don’t skimp on REM time.

Humidified air will enhance the effects of increased fluids and keep respiratory tissue moist. DO use a cool mist humidifier in the bedroom and stay away from steam vaporizers that may present a burn risk.  No humidifier? Steam up your bathroom by running the hot water in the shower and let Junior play in the warm, wet air.

Salt water gargles, a spoonful of honey (for children over 1), and throat lozenges (for children over 3) offer topical pain relief without the side effects of pharmaceuticals. Try them and see what works best for your munchkin. Frozen juice pops offer relief and add hydration at the same time.

No matter what you do, the average cold will last 5-7 days and most kids between 2 and 8 years old will get about seven of these suckers each year. The good news is that as the immune system gets older and is exposed to more and more microbes, fewer of them will cause illness. That’s why teenagers get sick less often than toddlers.

So do what you can, and check in with your family doc if symptoms last more than 10 days or are accompanied by high fever. And as always, trust your gut, Mamas!

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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2 responses to “Great Home Remedies for a Cold. Really.”

  1. Nancy

    When my son gets sick (which was happening every couple of weeks for a while) I like to use a low-pressure saline spray for his nose, and a couple of drops of eucalyptus oil on his clothes. I also put a few drops in the cool-mist humidifier, even though that’s supposed to be bad for the machine.

  2. Hazel M. Wheeler

    I’ve been a vegetarian for years, but everytime my son gets a cold, I make him chicken soup with garlic, noodles and veggies. He loves it and it always makes him feel better. I’d also say avoid dairy and limit sugar– it seems to feed viruses and bad bacteria. Thanks for good information yet again…

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The Mama ButtonThe information provided by MamasOnCall is not intended as a substitute for professional advice, but is for information purposes only. You assume full responsibility for the health and well-being of your family. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical or psychiatric condition.