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Best ways to treat cold and flu in kids

Doctors reveal the best ways to soothe your kid’s runny nose, cough and fever. Plus, which symptoms are a sign you should take your kid to the doctor.

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Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

RUNNY NOSE
What’s happening? Your child’s nose runs because it’s trying to wash away germs. (Sometimes, cold outdoor air is all it takes to trigger more blood flow — and, consequently, guck — in your kid’s nose.)

Five-star strategies:
1. Drink lots of water to loosen snot and make it easier to drain.
2. Gently clear out gunk with a suction bulb or tube (a.k.a. snot sucker).
3. Clean the nose with a soft, saline-treated wipe.
4. Sit with little ones in a steamy bathroom before bedtime to ease stuffiness.

Mom to the rescue: “We use an over-the-counter vapour saline spray that coats the inside of the nose to keep it moist, but not wet, which helps clear my son’s nose and make it easier for him to breathe.” — Melissa Sheldrick, Missassauga, Ont.

Note: Stay away from medicated decongestant sprays — they may worsen the stuffiness and aren’t safe for young kids.

The doc weighs in: Some kids’ noses seem to run all winter long. Is there anything you can do, besides stock up on tissue? “It depends on the degree to which it disturbs the child,” says Henry Ukpeh, a paediatrician in Trail, BC. “If an otherwise healthy child is running around and eating well, leave it alone; it will go away on its own.”

Tip 1: Your kid’s nose may get sore from weeks of wiping. Relieve it with balm you use on lips. Use your finger to apply, and wipe the balm with a clean cloth before and after.

Tip 2: Having trouble teaching your child to blow her nose? Get her to try moving a cotton ball with only nose air (keeping her mouth closed). Then, gently press one nostril closed so she’s blowing out the other. She’ll get it!

You’re wondering: Is it OK for kids to eat snot? Yep — one scientist theorizes that snot snacking may even strengthen immunity, by letting our bodies know what types of pathogens are in our environment. It definitely won’t hurt your kid to munch on a booger or two, but try to discourage it, since nose-dipped fingers can spread viruses and, of course, it grosses people out.

FLU AND FEVER
What’s happening? If your child has caught influenza — a respiratory virus, not to be confused with those gastrointestinal bugs commonly referred to as the stomach flu — she’s not a happy camper. She may have fever, chills, aches and pains, plus cold-like symptoms. Younger children can also have vomiting and diarrhea from influenza. “With the flu, you tend to be more sick than with the common cold,” says Bunmi Fatoye, medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. “You have extreme fatigue — you just want to lie down and not do anything.” She may feel feverish and achy for two to four days, and it may take up to two weeks to recover completely.

Five-star strategies:
1. Give acetaminophen for a fever that’s making your child uncomfortable. If she won’t take it by mouth, use a children’s suppository.
2. Rest is best! Tuck your child in with a favourite blanket or stuffie, and offer up lots of TLC.
3. If her tummy is queasy, a children’s anti-nausea medication or suppository can help her keep food down. Try non-greasy, bland foods like saltine crackers and clear liquids.
4. Don’t put her in a cool bath for fever — it may make your child shiver, raising her body temperature. Instead, set the room temperature to 20°C and dress her lightly.

Tip: After your child has a bout of vomiting or diarrhea, mix three ounces of water with a small pinch of salt and a small pinch of sugar, and give it to your child a few sips at a time. The salt replenishes what was lost, and the sugar helps the salt get absorbed.

Mom to the rescue: “I make chicken noodle soup with garlic and ginger. This seems to help a lot.” — Anne De Groot, Toronto

Note: Chicken soup is thought to be anti-inflammatory, as well as a comfort food. The warmth loosens congestion and eases sore throats, and the fluid helps keep kids hydrated.

The doc weighs in: When a child has diarrhea or vomiting, he can get dangerously dehydrated in just a few hours, depending on his size, whether he’s vomiting a little bit, or can’t keep anything down at all. Reduced urine, dry tears, loose skin, dry heaves and a dry mouth are all urgent signs. “You have to seek medical advice at that point,” says Ukpeh.

CHAPPED LIPS
What’s happening? It’s not a virus, but still a painful side effect of winter: Your child’s lips and the skin around his mouth are dry and sore, and constant lip-licking makes it worse. First, pump up the fluids to keep skin hydrated, then prevent more moisture loss by coating lips with anolin creams, coconut oil or balms. (Beware of the tasty ones — the flavours may convince him to put it on, but he may lick more as a result!) Apply these barriers at bedtime so they have more time to work their magic.

Mom to the rescue: “Zinc diaper cream is awesome on chapped lips for an overnight application.” — Khrysta Pilkington, Ottawa

SORE THROAT
What’s happening? Inflammation makes your child’s throat feel scratchy or painful, especially when she swallows. Blame it (usually) on a viral infection.

Five-star strategies:
1. Give acetaminophen to lessen the pain.
2. Use a humidifier at night to keep the air moist (disinfect it and change the water every day so mould and bacteria don’t grow). Humidifiers help with other cold symptoms, like stuffiness, too.
3. Have your child gargle with warm salt water, if she can do this without swallowing.
4. Suck away soreness: Try a frozen fruit pop. Children older than six can suck a throat lozenge or hard candy, too.
5. Drink warm liquids to increase blood flow to the area and help with discomfort. Lemon and honey are soothing for sore throats. (Remember that honey isn’t safe for kids younger than one year old.)

Mom to the rescue: “For sore throats, I give a marshmallow! It works almost instantly.” — Lindsay Wirth, Calgary

The doc weighs in: Most of the time, it’s a virus making your child’s throat sore, so it just has to run its course. But how do you know if it’s a strep infection instead? “It becomes incapacitating,” says Ukpeh. In other words, your kid is too sick and uncomfortable to participate in regular activities. Signs include difficulty eating or drinking, a fever or swollen glands, which often appear before the sore throat. Ukpeh notes that swollen glands should be checked out, even if the throat isn’t sore.

COUGH
What’s happening? Your kid is coughing because her airway is irritated or full of phlegm. A productive cough (wet and gunky) helps her clear mucus, so don’t try to suppress it. A dry cough can mean there’s leftover irritation from a cold.

Five-star strategies:
1. Try chewable vitamin-C supplements and vitamin-C-rich foods, like citrus fruit or orange juice. These may shorten colds.
2. For kids older than one year, give half a teaspoon of pasteurized honey (which has virus-fighting properties) before bed.
3. For kids older than two, a medicated rub on the chest and neck at bedtime has been shown to help with night coughing.
4. A warm bath or shower can loosen congestion and ease the airway.

Mom to the rescue: “I put a few drops of organic oil of oregano [available from health stores and some pharmacies] on the sole of each foot and rub it in when my kids get a cough from a cold. Then I put socks on their feet for the night.” — Larissa Vormittag, Calgary

The doc weighs in: Remember those cough syrups we all took as kids? They’re essentially useless and may cause harm, say medical experts. If your little one is suffering a dry cough, it may be irritation from a cold virus that’s come and gone and, in most cases, you can just wait it out if your child seems fine otherwise. But there’s a chance that a persistent dry cough indicates asthma, especially if a parent or sibling has asthma, eczema or hay fever (they’re all linked). Be sure to have your child checked out if the coughing goes on for weeks, wakes your child at night and is worsened by physical activity.

WHEN TO SEE THE DOCTOR
If your child has trouble breathing, or is feverish and hard to wake up, get medical attention right away. You should also call the doctor if your child is refusing to eat or drink, or has a fever that makes him miserable (no matter what the temperature) but won’t respond to acetaminophen; reaches 38.6°C and keeps rising; or lasts more than a couple of days. If your baby is younger than three months old, you’re safest calling the doc for any fever.

What if you aren’t sure what’s wrong but your gut says there’s a problem? “If you feel, ‘I can’t put my finger on it, but this is just not right,’ it’s best to get the child checked.

Has your baby got the flu? For more tips check out this video:

A version of this article appeared in our December 2013 issue with the headline “Your cold and flu cheat sheet,” pp.46-50.

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