I bet the first word that leaps to mind when you think about summer isn't "colds." True, colds are less, well, common this time of year, but children can still catch the pesky viral infections, and environmental factors make some kids more susceptible when the mercury rises. So what's the story on summertime colds?
While colds are most prevalent between September and April, it's not chilly temperatures per se that make kids more apt to pick up the infections that are transmitted through coughing, sneezing and touching contaminated surfaces.
"Cold viruses are spread more easily in the winter, when we tend to collect in enclosed spaces and have a lot closer interaction," explains Cathy MacLean, associate professor of family medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax, "but they're still around in the summer."
The suspects change somewhat with the seasons: Rhinoviruses cause most summer colds, while corona- viruses (responsible for about 10 to 20 percent of colds) are more widespread during winter and early spring. But most of the 200-plus cold viruses cause similar symptoms, and are spread the same way, so kids can pick them up at camp, playdates, daycare or anywhere else they gather.
That said, some children are more likely than others to catch the sniffles when school's out. Preschoolers who attend daycare are prime candidates: They average six to eight colds per year, versus two to four for teens. "Babies and toddlers haven't built up immunity to everyday viruses," notes MacLean. Nor have they learned the niceties of hygiene, like not gumming someone else's drooly toy, covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze, washing hands frequently, or wiping their noses with tissues instead of fingers. "Those things aren't just polite conventions — they really do decrease the spread of illness," emphasizes MacLean.
Is it a cold or hay fever? Since the arrival of warm weather coincides with the start of allergy season, it's sometimes tough to tell whether symptoms are caused by a cold virus or pollen. There's no sign like a distinctive cough or certain coloured phlegm that confirms one cause or the other, but the following clues can help make the call. "Most colds clear up in a week or so," says David F. Smith, medical director of the general paediatrics clinic at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver, so if nasal stuffiness and sneezing don't improve past this point, check with your child's doctor. A fever is another hint. "Colds are often preceded or accompanied by a mild fever, while allergic reactions rarely are," notes Alexander Hall, assistant professor and clinic supervisor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.
Also, kids who have a personal or family history of hay fever, eczema or asthma are more likely to develop seasonal allergies. On the other hand, if your daughter develops a sore throat and snuffly nose soon after her best bud at daycare does, you're probably dealing with a cold. Cold and allergy connection If your child has allergies, he may be more vulnerable to cold viruses: In susceptible kids, smog-laden air and seasonal allergens like pollen also irritate mucus membranes in the nose and throat, which may weaken them against viral invasion. Furthermore, Henry Ukpeh, a Trail, BC, paediatrician and spokesperson for the Canadian Paediatric Society, believes the exaggerated immune response that triggers allergies may amplify cold symptoms. "The body overreacts to the virus, so symptoms are more severe and prolonged than you might expect," he says. Allergies aside, summertime colds probably aren't any worse than winter ones, except in your child's mind. "I do not believe that symptoms of summer colds are really any worse," says Hall. "Kids just don't want to be sick when the sun is out and they don't have to go to school!"
Like their cold-weather counterparts, summer colds must simply run their course, says Ukpeh. And those old-fashioned remedies still play a role in soothing symptoms.
Flush with fluids. They do help, MacLean asserts, by thinning mucus in the nose and throat (making it easier to get rid of) and fending off dehydration when temperatures soar. In muggy weather, your child may find frosty homemade juice pops more tantalizing than soup. However, a steaming cup of chicken noodle can loosen nasal congestion. A few hot spices (like cayenne) added will boost decongestion. Add moisture. Some health professionals believe that humidifiers or vaporizers reduce respiratory swelling, thereby easing coughs and stuffy nose. "All of the recent scientific studies suggest they don't," acknowledges Smith, though his experience treating croupy kids has convinced him otherwise. (Older kids may reap similar benefits from a warm shower.) Also, consider keeping the air conditioning off when possible — it sucks moisture from the air.
Let kids bag more zees. A relaxed summertime routine can sabotage regular bedtime — leaving kids shortchanged on sleep. "Sufficient sleep and exercise are necessary to keep the immune system functioning properly," says Hall. Shoot for 10 to 12 hours of shuteye for preschoolers, and nine to 10 for older children. Kids who feel up to it needn't cut back on moderate exercise or play — it bolsters the body's infection-fighting capability.
Try a little fever reliever. If a fever is making your child uncomfortable, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can turn down her temperature. Cool compresses and lukewarm baths can also help.
Stick to healthy eating. "Excess refined foods like white flour suppress the immune system," says Hall. "A diet rich in whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables does the opposite." Vitamin C and zinc, in particular, promote immune system health. But does taking extra banish cold symptoms sooner? Research involving children is scant and conflicting. Most studies indicating supplements ease symptoms required taking hefty daily doses, even when kids weren't sick. However, large amounts of vitamin C cause diarrhea (which can be dangerously dehydrating), and too much zinc depresses immune functioning. MacLean recommends sticking to food sources like citrus fruit for vitamin C, but says most kids get sufficient zinc from a sensible diet.
Go easy on meds. "We usually don't recommend decongestants and other medications because they don't change the course of the cold and kids are more prone to their side effects," says MacLean. Sometimes, under certain circumstances, doctors may make an exception. Ukpeh occasionally prescribes a short course of inhaled steroids for allergy sufferers who can't shake a cold-related cough. If you're jetting off on vacation, Smith suggests plying your child with a dose of decongestant spray, such as paediatric Neo-Synephrine, before takeoff and landing. This eases swelling at the back of the nose near the Eustachian tube, which equalizes pressure between the middle ear and surrounding air, allowing the ears to "pop" so your child won't writhe in pain as the altitude changes.
Keep heads above water. Some doctors recommend that kids with colds take a little extra care during another popular summertime activity — swimming. According to Smith, water could enter the Eustachian tube and become trapped, leading to a middle ear infection. While not all physicians agree, it's probably prudent for kids to save dives and dunks until they've fully recovered.
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