Guess what? Chest rubs can do more harm than good and your gran’s favourite folk remedies really do work. Read on for more “cool” facts about keeping your family well this winter.
Are cool-mist vaporizers really better than the steam type? They probably work equally well at easing stuffy noses, though each has pros and cons, says Jonathan Kerr, a family doctor and spokesman for the College of Family Physicians of Canada. Steam vaporizers are risky because they can cause burns to curious toddlers — but the heat also discourages the growth of potentially harmful bacteria and mould. The cool-mist ones are safer, but Kerr notes that they don’t disinfect, so they need to be washed with soap and water at least twice weekly to prevent bacterial buildup.
Do kids really need sunscreen in the winter? Yes, particularly if they’re skiing or playing outside in the snow. While the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays are weaker in winter, “they bounce off of the snow, almost doubling the amount hitting your skin,” explains Ian Landells, a paediatric dermatologist in St. John’s and spokesman for the Canadian Dermatology Association. Downhill skiing presents an extra peril, he adds; the higher the altitude, the stronger the UV radiation.
Does going outdoors without a coat really make kids catch cold? Viruses — not chilly weather — cause colds, stresses Henry Ukpeh, a Canadian Paediatric Society spokesman and Trail, BC, paediatrician. However, a recent study helps explain why colds are so much more common in wintertime: Flu viruses, which cause cold-like symptoms, survive for much longer in dry winter air, meaning kids are more likely to breathe them in or pick them up from surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards. Plus, nippy temperatures make noses run; infected kids who mop at the mucus with their hands can leave tiny drops of virus-laden liquid in their wake for others to pick up. (There is one sliver of evidence suggesting we might be more susceptible to cold viruses when we’re chilled: Ukpeh notes a study in which subjects who soaked their feet in icy water were more likely to come down with colds than people whose feet weren’t dunked.)
Should you really “feed a cold and starve a fever”? Starving is never a good idea — children always need food energy, Kerr points out. However, there may be a germ of wisdom buried in the old saying. Dutch researchers found that eating a meal seems to stimulate immune cells that are expert at killing viruses (which cause colds), while sticking to liquids seems to mobilize immune cells better suited to killing bacteria (more often the culprit behind illnesses that cause fevers). So if your child turns up his nose at food when he’s feverish, it may be Mother Nature’s way of helping his body fight off a bacterial infection. “If kids aren’t eating three squares for a couple of days, that’s OK,” reassures Kerr, “as long as they’re taking in fluid.”
Should all kids avoid cold medicines? Health Canada now recommends not giving cold meds to kids younger than six because they carry a risk of rare — but dangerous — side effects, such as irregular heartbeat, convulsions and even death. Plus, there’s scant evidence they actually work. (Why the age cut-off? Partly because older kids can tell you if the meds make them feel strange, says Kerr.) Better to stick with drug-free remedies like chicken soup, salt-water nasal rinse for stuffy noses, and a spoonful of honey to soothe a cough; believe it or not, studies show the latter two really do reduce the severity of the symptoms. (Avoid giving honey to babies under a year old because of the remote risk of infant botulism.) For flu symptoms, such as fever and achy muscles, ibuprofen or acetaminophen is fine, but give the dose according to your child’s weight, not age, Kerr emphasizes. (Ask your pharmacist for a weight-based dosing chart.)
Can cold weather really trigger asthma attacks? Yes. Some kids with asthma find very cold air irritating; it causes the tubes leading to the lungs to clench, which triggers coughing or wheezing. However, says Ukpeh, this shouldn’t happen if asthma is properly controlled. So if cold air sets off a coughing fit and your child has been taking her medication, it may be time to have her treatment tweaked. Breathing through a balaclava or scarf, which warms air as it’s breathed in, may also help. And if your child has a puffer, be sure she takes it with her outside.
Is eczema more likely to flare up in the wintertime? Winter is a prime time for eczema flare-ups because the dry air sucks moisture out of the skin, making it more prone to irritation. People with eczema have a defect in their skin that makes it harder to keep moisture in and irritants out. Plus, their skin reacts more to irritants, such as scents in shampoos and soaps. Applying a liberal coat of thick unscented moisturizing cream (Landells recommends such brands as Cetraben, Cliniderm, Cetaphil, Lipikar Baume and Impruv) immediately after a short, warm bath can keep flare-ups at bay when the mercury and humidity dip. “The bath gets moisture into the skin, and the moisturizer locks it in,” Landells explains. He emphasizes the importance of applying the cream to your child’s skin while it is still damp — do not dry first. “Otherwise the moisture is lost,” says Landells.
Does lip balm really make dry lips worse? According to Landells, lip balm is rarely to blame for dry, chapped lips — dry air, mouth breathing and lip licking are the main culprits. Saliva is designed to help digest food, he points out, so it’s tough on the lips. A good lip balm works in much the same way as a moisturizer — it helps prevent dry air from drawing moisture out. So what should you look for in a balm? Plain petroleum jelly is a good option. Avoid products containing alcohol, which dries the skin. Flavoured balms may also be a bad idea, if they encourage your child to lick her lips!
Do you really lose most of your body heat through your head when you go hatless? It depends, says Kerr. The head accounts for roughly 10 percent of the body’s surface area in adults, and that’s about how much body heat exits through the head — if you’re standing naked in the cold. If you’re warmly bundled, with only your face and head uncovered, you lose relatively little body heat. (But hats are critical when you’re so chilled that you’re shivering and headed for hypothermia.)
Kids’ heads are larger in proportion to their bodies (as much as 20 percent of the body’s surface area in a toddler), so hats are more important for keeping them warm. And there are other good reasons to encourage your child to don a toque — for starters, it can protect their ears from frostbite.
Do camphor and eucalyptus chest rubs really ease a stuffy nose? No, but they fool you into thinking they do by activating sensors in the nose that make you feel the passage of air more acutely, says Kerr. And they’re potentially dangerous: If swallowed, camphor and eucalyptus oils (also found in some creams for muscle soreness) can be toxic to children and cause side effects, such as headaches, nausea, vomiting and seizures. Some experts believe they may increase mucus production in very young kids (particularly when applied directly under the nose), leading to breathing difficulties. Thus, there are health care providers who advise against using any products containing aromatic oils. At the least, avoid applying them to the face, follow directions carefully and store out of your child’s reach.
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