By Laura Flynn McCarthy for KnowMore.tv
Colds are not usually serious, but they can make your children miserable, and as a parent, all you want to do is help them feel better -- and maybe help everyone get a decent night's sleep. In recent years, major health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have stopped recommending nonprescription cold and cough medicines for children under age 6; recent evidence has shown that they are not effective and may even be harmful to kids in this age group, especially to kids under age 2.
Most colds clear up on their own after a week or so, but until they do, here are steps you can take to help your child feel a little less miserable:
1. Wet their whistles
Encourage your children to drink plenty of water, diluted apple juice and other clear liquids. The fluids can thin mucus, making it easier for your children to cough and blow their noses if necessary, and if their throats are sore, fluids can be soothing.
2. Get misty
Use a cool mist humidifier in your child's room, or for a croupy cough, sit in a steamy bathroom with him with a hot shower running. The moist warm air will open his breathing passages and soothe his sore throat.
3. Honey do
Honey can be more effective than over-the-counter cough syrups for reducing the frequency and severity of nighttime coughing in kids, according to research from Pennsylvania State University. Honey contains natural antimicrobial agents and antioxidants, which might help the body fight off cold germs. Because it is naturally sweet, honey also stimulates salivation, which can help thin excessive mucus and/or soothe a dry throat and cough. Some experts recommend starting with half a teaspoon of honey for kids ages 1 to 5 and for those ages 6 and up, starting with one teaspoon. Talk with your children's doctor for the best advice for your own kids. And here's a honey don't: Never give honey to infants under age 1; it may cause a potentially serious bacterial infection called infantile botulism.
4. Serve them soup
Your grandmother was right; chicken soup may reduce cold symptoms and soothe a cough. Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center have found that chicken soup contains ingredients that have anti-inflammatory and other properties that can soothe cold symptoms. Other research shows that chicken soup may temporarily thin mucus, relieving congestion and reducing cough. And all of that warm liquid can soothe a sore throat and minimize a cough, too.
5. Rub it in
You may have thought vapor rubs as cold remedies went out of fashion with polyester leisure suits, but recent research shows they may still be worth a try. In one study of 138 children ages 2 to 11 who had coughs due to colds, researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that cough severity and frequency were reduced when parents spent one minute at bedtime massaging a small amount of a rub containing a combination of camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oils onto their child's chest and neck. The vapor rub worked better than plain petroleum jelly or no treatment at all, and the kids who had the vapor rub treatment slept better through the night, as did their parents.
6. Give it a stir
Once your kids are old enough to gargle -- and not swallow -- salt water, dissolve 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt into one cup of warm water and let them go to it. Research shows salt water gargles can temporarily relieve a sore or scratchy throat.
7. Offer drops with discretion
Cough drops may bring temporary relief of a dry, tickling cough, but never give them to children under age 3, as they could present a choking hazard. Worried about cavities? There are lots of sugar-free cough drops available over-the-counter, too.
8. De-stuff a stuffy nose
Most kids can't blow their noses well until they reach age 4 or 5. If your child is a pre-blower, try using a bulb syringe to suck excess mucus out of her nose gently, not inserting the syringe too deeply into the nostrils. Putting a few drops of a salt-water (saline) solution in her nose can help to loosen any crusty areas of mucus, making clearing the nasal passages a little easier.
That said, know when to call the doctor
Sometimes a cough or other cold symptoms may signal a more serious problem. Call your child's doctor if...
- Your child is under 3 months old. Any cough or cold in a very young infant may be serious.
- Your child is showing potential signs of whooping cough (pertussis) including a whoop-like cough that becomes more severe and/or frequent, bluish-looking lips or nails, lethargy or unusual fatigue, vomiting.
- Your child has a fever or ear pain in addition to a cough and/or stuffy nose.
- A cough persists beyond a week, especially if it worsens after a week.
- Your child is coughing up blood or thick, discolored, smelly mucus.
- In addition to coughing, your child's breathing is labored.
Of course, nothing will make your child feel better than your special brand of tender loving care. Long after her cough has quieted and her stuffy nose has cleared, her memories of your gentle touch and soothing attention will linger. You may not have the cure for the common cold, but as a loving parent, you have the magic touch.
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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.