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Coughs and Colds 101: Keeping Your Child Healthy During Winter

written by Dr. Jennie Gary

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Hi. I’m Doctor Jennie Gary. Welcome to another episode of Kid’s Corner.

Today, we’re going to be talking about the dreaded cough and cold season.

Have you ever felt like your child is constantly sick during the winter season, jumping from one cold to the next?

Trust me, Aa a pediatrician and parent myself, you are not alone. What many parents don’t realize is that it’s actually normal for young children to get six to eight colds in a single year and most of these colds usually occur during the fall and winter months. With each cold sometimes lasting one to two weeks, that can make it feel nearly constant for a parent at times.

Coles, also known as upper respiratory infections (or URIs), are an infection of the nose, sinuses, or throat. URIs are spread by droplets through cough, sneezes, or even direct contact.

The common cold is the most frequent kind of URI that affects kids.

The flu and sinus infections are other common kinds of URIs.

It’s important to know that the vast majority of URIs and kids are caused by viruses, which means that antibiotics won’t cure them since antibiotics only work against bacteria and not viruses.

But don’t worry, there are many things you can do at home to help your child feel better and recover.

Let’s review some of the supportive care that’s recommended for colds and children. Keep your child at home if they have a fever and wash their hands often, disinfect surfaces and avoid kissing and sharing cups to prevent the spread of infection.

Have your child drink plenty of water and other fluids. This can help soothe a dry or sore throat. You can also add honey or lemon juice and warm water to provide throat pain relief.

But be careful, please never give honey to a child under one-year old. Likewise, never give water to infants under six months old unless it’s been directed by your doctor.

If your child has a fever or is in pain, you can give them children acetaminophen, which is the same as brand name Tylenol, or if they are older than six months of age, children’s ibuprofen, which goes by brand names Advil or Motrin. But please be safe with medicines and always make sure your doctor approves.

Read and follow all the instructions on the label and remember to pay attention to dosing windows.

For infants and young children under age two years old, ask your doctor what weight-based dose is best for them. Most over-the-counter pain or fever reducers for children don’t have the dose listed for children under two years old.

And never give aspirin to anyone under nineteen years old. It’s been linked to Ray syndrome, which is a serious illness.

If your child does have just a low fever or elevated temperature, there are other options as well to bring their fever down.

You can, for example, put a cold wet washcloth on their forehead. You can give them a lukewarm bath, or you can just try to remove some of the extra clothes or blankets that you have on them.

If you’re going to monitor their temperature this way, just make sure you’re frequently checking with a thermometer to make sure that their temperature is coming down. For any real high fever or if your child is uncomfortable, go ahead and use the Tylenol or Motrin.

If your child has a stuffy nose or congestion, You can try using a nasal saline spray or a nasal saline drop. For infants and toddlers, you can actually use a nasal aspirator or a bulb suction to help remove some of congestion from their nostrils.

Additionally, you can try a cool mist humidifier while your child is sleeping to relieve some of their congestion.

Ultimately, I recommend for all children to first try other supportive measures first and to use over-the-counter cough medicines sparingly.

The American Academy of Pediatrics actually advises against cough and cold medicines like dimetapp and robitussin for children that are under six years old. And that’s because they don’t really work for children that age and they can even be harmful.

Side effects can include sedation and sometimes these medications are already mixed with Tylenol or ibuprofen, which can lead to potential overdose when used with other medicines.

For children who are six years and older, always follow all the instructions carefully and make sure you know how much medicine to give and how long to use it. And use the dosing device if one is included. I know as a parent, how difficult it can be to hear your child coughing and struggling. But be reassured.

This cough is their body’s natural mechanism for getting the infection out of their body. It’s okay if they don’t cough out the mucus, it will eventually clear through the digestive system if swallowed.

For cough relief, try more natural methods instead of medication.

Some natural methods could be honey, warm fluids, and lots of water. Again, you can use a nasal saline spray every few hours. You can apply a droplet or spray into each side of the nose and then depending on your child’s age, have them either gently blow their nose or for younger children, you can go ahead and use the nasal aspirator to suction their nose.

Try having your child sleep at a more upright angle with extra pillows or by elevating the head of their mattress. Of course, for infants, there should never be any extra pillows or extra bedding within their crib.

You can also try using a cool mist humidifier by their bedside at night. Just make sure to follow the directions for cleaning the machine’s filter.

Finally, of course, encourage your child to rest. Try to choose activities like reading or coloring instead of running around at the park, and avoid crowded places and contact with others to prevent spreading the virus to others.

If your child does have a fever, they should stay home until they are fever-free for at least twenty-four hours.

Encourage frequent hand washing and try not to share cups, utensils, or towels.

Let’s talk briefly about a question that is on many parents’ minds when their child sick: Will antibiotics help my child’s cold?

Since viruses account for the vast majority of colds and kids, antibiotics won’t work, and that’s because antibiotics, again, are drugs used to kill bacteria.

Bacteria can cause other infections like strep throat, ear infections, and pneumonia.

Aside from antibiotics not working against viral infections, they can also come with many side effects.

Side effects can include nausea, diarrhea, skin rash, yeast infection, and rarely severe allergic reactions which can present with itching, swelling, or breathing problems.

However, there are definitely some cases in which antibiotics are needed in children. So always ask your doctor if antibiotics are the best treatment.

How do you know if you should bring your child to the doctor or not?

First of all, Remember that you should call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care.

For example, call nine one one or go to the if your child seems very lethargic, confused, or is hard to wake up.

Your child has severe trouble breathing.

Your child has a fever lasting longer than five days in a row. Or has a very high fever.

Your child seems to be getting much sicker or their symptoms are rapidly worsening.

Your child coughs up blood, they’re unable to eat or drink, or your child is complaining of severe pain.

Watch closely for changes in your child’s health and be sure to contact your doctor if your child is showing new symptoms like a rash, an earache, or a sore throat.

You should also call your doctor if your child is having fevers for more than five days in a row or if they’ve had a mild cold for a few days and then they suddenly spike a new fever.

Call your doctor also if your child has had a cough for more than three weeks straight or they just don’t get better as expected.

And you can always make a visit with your child’s doctor even if just for reassurance or for any other concerns you may have.

And what about once your child starts to get better? When is it okay for them to go back to school?

Ultimately, each school has its own set of rules for returning to school after being sick. Make sure to check with your child’s school about their sick policy.

As a pediatrician, I generally recommend that a child not go back to school until they have been fever-free for at least twenty-four hours without the use of fever-reducing medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

We also recommend that your child’s appetite and energy level are fairly close to normal before returning to school.

If your child has been vomiting, we also recommend twenty-four hours free of vomiting before returning to school. And if your school requires a doctor’s note to excuse their absence, then be sure to make an appointment for that too.

I hope that some of these tools will come in handy this winter season. Remember to walk those hands often. I’m Doctor Jennie. I’ll see you on the next Kid’s Corner.

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