By Bill Sears, MD
There’s never a convenient time for your child to get sick. While missed school (and work!) days are going to happen, there are steps you can take to minimize them. As a pediatrician and a parent, I’m eager to share strategies to support their immune system so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place. I’m also including simple ways to address your child’s cough and cold symptoms that don’t involve medication.
The best prevention strategy is simple regular exercise, sufficient sleep and good nutrition. Help your family maintain a healthy diet, packed with vitamins and nutrients including immune-boosting foods such as fish, citrus fruits and leafy vegetables, to help prevent the onset of illness. And stock up on items such as tissues, vitamin C, throat lozenges, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray. Keep them in one handy place to make illness prevention even easier.
Other strategies include:
- Wash hands often and properly: According to the CDC, hand washing is the most effective way to stay healthy. Teach your children to wash their hands frequently to help kill the viruses and bacteria they may have collected. Have them use regular soap and warm water to scrub their hands including the back of their hands, in between fingers and under nails for 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based gel if soap and water are not available. Remind your child to sneeze and cough into the crux of their elbow and to keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth.
- Disinfect to protect: Kids can touch and retouch more than 300 surfaces in just 30 minutes. You can help protect family members from picking up and spreading germs with their hands by spraying commonly touched surfaces and objects with a disinfectant after cleaning. Regular disinfection will help kill cold- and flu-causing viruses and bacteria before anyone in your family gets sick.
- Start the whole family on daily superfruit protection. Black elderberries are one of nature’s richest sources of pigments called anthocyanins which have a remarkable ability to stimulate the body’s immune system. The best-researched form is Sambucol, available in great-tasting pectin-based Gummies, which is the original black elderberry supplement used during cough/cold season for natural immune support.
Natural strategies if your child gets sick
If your child’s cold symptoms are not interfering with his sleep or daily activity, then you probably don’t need to use medication. Often the most effective treatments for colds are “non-medical” such as nasal saline spray, hot steam and simply drinking plenty of fluids.
This is also important to note because all bottles of cold and cough meds that have dosing labels for kids under 2 have been taken off the shelves and are no longer available. Manufacturers have also just declared that these meds should not be used in children under 4 years of age.
The reason for this is two-fold: First, there have been a number of infants and young children harmed by accidental overdoses of these meds when a parent mixed different meds together OR gave too high a dose, this is the reason that the FDA decided to step in and make them no longer available. Second, there has been very little research done on young kids to prove that cold and cough meds are safe and/or effective. Even though they seem to work well and rarely cause any problems when dosed properly, the FDA felt it was prudent to put a hold on their use until further safety and efficacy data become available, and we agree.
Some things you might try instead include:
- Steam cleaning: For coughs, running noses and congestion, give your child steam, steam, and more steam. For infants and young children, turn the bathroom into a steam room with the door closed and the shower on full hot. Sit in there for 10 or 15 minutes. For older children, use a facial steamer or pot of hot water (carefully!). The steam will help loosen the nose and chest congestion, and help your child cough it up or blow it out. Do this steam cleaning every morning and before bed, as well as during the day if possible. Clap the chest and back. While you sit in the bathroom steaming, clap on your child’s chest and back (where the lungs are) firmly (harder than burping) with an open hand. This helps shake the mucus loose so your child can cough it up better.
- Sleep upright: If possible, encourage your child to sleep in a slightly upright position. This allows for easier breathing during sleep.
- Clear out their nose: For older children, it is crucial to have them blow their nose several times during a steam cleaning, as well as frequently throughout the day. Getting out all the junk will help prevent this from turning into a bacterial infection. An alternative to steaming is to use nasal decongestant spray to loosen up the nasal congestion before blowing it out. For infants too young to blow their nose, you can suction them out using a blue rubber bulb syringe.
- Drink twice as much liquid as usual: This will help to thin secretions and prevent dehydration.
If you choose to use medication to treat coughs and colds, do so only when the symptoms are interfering with your child’s daily life or keeping them, or you, awake at night. It’s okay to let your child cough several times an hour during the day. It is better for her to cough up the mucus so it doesn’t sit in her lungs. It is also better to tolerate a runny nose or some nasal congestion during the day if it isn’t bothering your child.
Always contact your doctor if you have a gut feeling that your child is unusually ill, or if her symptoms worsen or don’t improve after more than four days. Persistent high fever, dehydration, severe cough with chest pain and shortness of breath, or a severe headache with a stiff, painful back-of-the-neck and persistent vomiting may be signs that something more serious is going on.
William Sears, M.D. William Sears, M.D., has been advising parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston. He is a father of 8 children. He and his wife Martha have written more than 45 books and hundreds of articles on parenting, childcare, nutrition, and healthy aging. He is the cofounder of the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute for training health coaches, and he runs the health and parenting website AskDrSears.com.