Treating toddlers: Remedies for the common cold

Written by julie christensen
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Comforting little ones naturally

Treating toddlers: Remedies for the common cold
Providing comfort and helping your child sleep are two of the most important things you can do for an unwell toddler. (Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

There have not been enough safety studies done (on over-the-counter medicines), especially for children under age 2. Young children metabolise medications differently than older children or adults, so there is risk of overdosing.

— Dr. Tamara Cullen, M.D., N.D.

Children suffer from colds more than any other illness -- on average, eight to 10 each year. While colds generally aren't serious, they can cause discomfort and irritability. The common cold is the number one reason people miss work and school. Since over-the-counter cold medications for young infants are not widely recommended, many parents have turned to natural remedies, such as herbal and homeopathic treatments. Some of these treatments have been proved effective at relieving cold symptoms. Others are ineffective or possibly even dangerous.

Cold medicines: What you need to know

In October 2008, the FDA issued a statement discouraging the use of over-the-counter cough and cold medications for children under age 4, but it stopped short of banning the drugs altogether. The FDA measure followed drug-manufacturing companies’ voluntary steps to change their labels to indicate that the products shouldn't be used for children under age 4.

“There have not been enough safety studies done, especially for children under age 2,” said Tamara Cullen, a doctor of traditional and naturopathic medicines. “Young children metabolise medications differently than older children or adults, so there is risk of overdosing.”

Over-the-counter cough and cold medications treat only symptoms rather than the illness itself and are often ineffective. Oral decongestants, for example, thicken the mucous, allowing bacteria to remain in the nasal membranes, potentially causing sinus infections, says Dr. Jerry Rubin, M.D., co-author of "Naturally Healthy Kids."

So what’s a parent to do when a young child suffers from cold and cough symptoms? Try measures aimed at comforting your child and boosting his immune system to hasten recovery.

Natural remedies

Comfort measures reduce fever and muscle aches, decrease congestion and coughing, and allow a child to sleep. In addition to natural remedies, offer acetaminophen to treat aches and fever, advises Rubin.

As it turns out, grandma was right. Recent studies confirm that honey treats a cough better than cough syrup does, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics. It recommends giving 1/2 teaspoon (2.5g) of honey to children age 2 to 5 and warns against giving honey to children under 1 year of age.

For infants age 3 months to 1 year, the academy recommends 1 to 3 tsp. (5g - 15g) of warm, clear fluids, such as water or apple juice, four times per day. If a baby under 3 months of age has a cough, medical attention is required.

To loosen congestion and reduce coughing, place your child on your lap and lean her forward at a 30-degree angle. Cup your hand and pat her back. Add the essential oil of lavender or eucalyptus radiata to her warm bath.

Try horehound or cherry bark syrups to reduce coughs, or elderberry syrup to reduce flu symptoms and boost the immune system. Such over-the-counter products as petroleum jelly, saline solution and calendula cream applied to inflamed noses can minimise discomfort, Rubin says.

The comforts of food

Other studies confirm that grandma was right on another issue: Old-fashioned remedies, such as chicken soup and warm drinks, do help children recover faster from colds.

A 2008 study by Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre found that a hot drink of fruit cordial brought immediate relief of cold symptoms, such as sore throat, coughing, runny nose, congestion and tiredness. Fluids help keep nasal passages moist, allowing the body to heal more quickly. Heat honey, apple juice and a bit of lemon juice for a soothing, flavourful “tea.”

Researchers at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha found that chicken soup has mild anti-inflammatory properties that may hasten healing. Chicken soup also relieves nasal congestion and soothes irritated airways. Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a medical doctor, professor and vice chairman of pediatrics and infectious diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Denver, adds a human touch: “It tastes great, makes the house smell wonderful and shows your kids that you love them.”

Children usually have little or no appetite when they’re sick, so don’t force foods. Infections reduce the body’s ability to digest food. Avoid sugars, dairy products or foods high in fat, such as peanut butter, fried foods or junk food. Instead, offer oatmeal, apple sauce, chicken soup or gelatin.

The power of sleep

One of the problems with over-the-counter medications is that they mask symptoms. A young child may seem to have bounced back after taking a medication and resume normal activity, but once the effects of the drug wear off, the child seems exhausted. These bouts of activity can actually lengthen the time a child is ill.

Mothers have always known that sleep is the best remedy for a sick child. An old English proverb says, “Sleep is better than medicine.”

"Children with colds should be allowed to stay home from school or day care so that they can sleep a little longer in the morning, take a nap and avoid the physical and mental rigours of school," advised Dr. Rallie McAllister, who also holds a master's degree in public health. "Rest and sleep are critical to healing."

Cold symptoms typically last from seven to 14 days, and while there is no cure, simple, time-tested remedies will comfort your child and make you feel better as well. Pull out grandma’s recipe for chicken soup, stock up on apple juice and acetaminophen, and avoid using over-the-counter cough and cold medications unless your child's doctor advises you to do so.

Tips and warnings

  • Just because a product is labelled “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe. Herbal teas are mild and generally safe for children, but be careful with tinctures and other herbal preparations. Consult a certified herbalist for safe dosages for children.

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