The doctor’s office closed hours ago, and your child’s scratchy throat morphs into a hacking cough that rattles the windows. Or your 10-year-old’s achy legs are keeping him awake at night. While common childhood ailments, such as coughs and growing pains, are usually harmless, they can cause serious discomfort. Here’s how to help your child feel better.
The problem: Khalid has developed a nagging cough, thanks to that cold he caught at daycare.
Skip the over-the-counter cold medicines — new evidence indicates they don’t work in children, says Michael Rieder, chair of paediatric clinical pharmacology for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research/GlaxoSmithKline. And, Rieder cautions, recent research shows those medicine cabinet staples may not be so safe, as parents often unintentionally overdose their kids.
The fix: Buckwheat honey is the bee’s knees when it comes to calming coughs caused by viruses: In a recent study, the sweet stuff soothed bedtime barking better than DM cough syrup, notes Elizabeth Shaw, a Hamilton family doctor and College of Family Physicians of Canada spokesperson. Use a half-teaspoon for kids aged two to five, one teaspoon for ages six to 11, and two teaspoons for those 12 and over. (Never give honey to babies under one year: It poses a risk of infant botulism, which can be fatal.)
However, if the cough worsens, or lingers longer than a few days, check with your doctor: Persistent nighttime cough can signal allergies or asthma.
The problem: Aisha’s snuffly nose is making her miserable.
The fix: Salt water may be just the thing to unclog stuffed sinuses and nasal passages, according to Leslie Solomonian, a naturopathic doctor and instructor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto. Recent trials tested a salt water rinse of the nose and sinuses against standard cold and flu medications — and the salt water came out on top. Use a commercial version or mix up your own by dissolving half a teaspoon of salt in one cup of warm water: Use a dropper to put a few drops in each nostril; wait 60 seconds, then suction with a bulb syringe. It’s worth noting, though, that in one of the studies, the rinse was done six times a day — something many parents may not manage. And, Rieder points out, “it’s unpleasant — a lot of kids hate it.”
If the salty strategy sounds like water torture, try fluids and a humidifier, suggests Anne Marie Picone Ford, a spokesperson for the Canadian Pharmacists’ Association (and a mother of seven!), who practises in Moncton, NB. If your kid still can’t breathe, ask your pharmacist to recommend a product containing guaifenesin, which helps break up mucous (guaifenesin is not recommended for kids under two).
The problem: After a few days at the cottage, Dannica’s ear canal becomes fiercely itchy and painful.
The fix: According to Shaw, prevention is the best medicine for swimmer’s ear. “A few drops of diluted vinegar (half and half with water, before swimming) helps acidify the ear canal and reduce the risk of infection.” This may even work in the earliest stages of infection, when a mild itch is the only symptom. Otherwise, prescription antibiotic eardrops are usually needed. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen and warm compresses can ease the discomfort until you see the doctor.
The problem: Matthieu sometimes suffers from crampy leg pains that keep him up at night.
The fix: According to Shaw, warm compresses, massage or a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen will usually ease growing pains. But, she stresses, if the pain is severe, involves the joints, repeatedly interferes with sleep or disrupts normal activity, have your child checked out by a doctor to rule out more serious problems.
The problem: Owen has a cold without any fever, but suddenly starts complaining that his ear hurts.
The fix: “Most middle-ear infections will go away on their own, so watch and wait for a day or two in a child who is otherwise well” and older than two years, Shaw says. (The majority of ear infections are caused by viruses and don’t respond to antibiotics.) An appropriate dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen can ease pain; resting the ear on a towel-wrapped hot-water bottle may also offer comfort.
The problem: Dustin tumbles off his bike, scraping a long swathe of skin off his shin.
The fix: First, wash the area with soap and water, or just water, to ensure it’s free of debris. You can apply either an over-the-counter antibiotic cream, such as Polysporin, or crushed garlic (a natural antibacterial; careful, it stings a bit), or nothing. However, a dab of ointment may also help foster healing by keeping the area moist. Lightly cover the area with gauze or a bandage during the day to keep out dirt.
The problem: Sofia gets a sliver in her finger from the wooden handrail at the park.
The fix: For splinters that stick up above the skin, Rieder offers this neat trick: Apply a blackhead removal strip, then tear it off. Duct or packing tape may also work. A warm water soak sometimes softens the skin enough so you can grab the sliver with tweezers. Failing that, “splinters have to be lifted out, so you have to get a needle underneath it,” notes Rieder. “A clean sewing needle works fine.” No luck? A wood sliver may work its way out unaided if you leave it for a day or two. (Glass or metal splinters should be removed promptly, though.)
The problem: Five-year-old Paige probably has a flu bug — her muscles are aching, and she’s running a temperature of 39.5°C.
The fix: Fever helps fight viral infections, so you needn’t treat it unless your child is uncomfortable. Solomonian advocates giving herbal teas (such as peppermint, catnip or yarrow) that promote an “appropriate” fever. (If your kid doesn’t fancy a cuppa, brew up an extra-strong batch and add it to bathwater — the active ingredients will be absorbed through the skin.)
However, if a hot forehead and achy muscles are standing in the way of a good night’s rest, try acetaminophen or ibuprofen. To ensure you give the right amount, dose by weight rather than age: Your pharmacist can provide you with a by-weight dosing chart.
The problem: Poor Nolan is doubled over with belly cramps because he hasn’t pooped in…he doesn’t remember how long.
The fix: For a one-time attack, a dose of laxative, such as milk of magnesia or lactulose, is safe for healthy kids over six months, says John Howard, a professor of paediatrics and medicine at the University of Western Ontario in London. Check with your pharmacist about dosing. Alter-natively, Shaw adds, “a paediatric glycerine suppository can be used.” Or gently massaging the abdomen with castor oil in a clockwise direction may provide relief, Solomonian says. To ward off future bouts, make sure your child is getting enough fluids and dietary fibre — ground flaxseed is a great source, and can be added to everything from muffins to meat loaf. Good old prunes or prune juice can also keep things moving, notes Picone Ford.