7 home remedies for kids' colds that actually work

Drugstore cough and cold meds aren’t recommended for kids, but there are plenty of safe home remedies worth trying.

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When your kiddo gets sick with a cough or cold, you just want to make them feel better. To help ease their symptoms, look to a variety of home remedies rather than those all-in-one drugstore cough and cold meds. “Over-the-counter medications aren’t really recommended for kids,” says Hoda Mankal, a primary-care nurse practitioner in Ottawa. “There’s no evidence that they work, and they can actually have some harmful side effects.” These may include an increased or uneven heart rate, sleeplessness, drowsiness, nausea, constipation and slow or shallow breathing. Health Canada doesn’t recommend using over-the-counter cough and cold meds for kids under the age of six, with the exception of paediatric acetaminophen and ibuprofen, which are generally good for treating aches and fevers over 38.5C when used correctly by caregivers. Many herbal and alternative remedies haven’t been evaluated for use with kids and are generally not recommended by medical practitioners, so check with your healthcare provider. Here are some tools for battling coughs and colds this winter.

1. A spoonful of honey

Several studies have shown that swallowing one teaspoon (15 mL) of honey about half an hour before bed can help you get a better night’s sleep and settle a cough, says Mankal. It’s believed that the antimicrobial and antibacterial properties of honey may be at work. However, remember that kids under the age of one should never have honey due to the risk of infant botulism.

2. Plenty of fluids

Keeping kids hydrated is a really important part of making them feel better, says Jared Friesen, a family nurse practitioner in Alberta. “A cold or cough can make kids lethargic, so they won’t want to eat or drink much, which means they can get even more lethargic, and the cycle continues,” he says. Offer small amounts of food and especially liquid often. Kid-friendly options include soup (try a low-sodium broth), applesauce, juice mixed with a bit of water (offering it in an egg cup or even a shot glass may be enough of a novelty to intrigue them) and frozen treats like Popsicles. Mankal says a good alternative to juice is cooled, fruity hibiscus tea, which is brightly coloured like juice but not nearly as sweet.

3. Saline spray

“Saline drops and mists can help because salt loosens the mucus and makes it easier for a child to clear it out of their nose,” says Mankal. “If they’re upset with you after you do it, that’s how you know you’ve done enough.” You can also get out the suction bulbs, or “snot suckers,” to gently clear out their nose. You can try teaching kids ages six and up to gargle with salt water (a teaspoon of table salt dissolved in a cup of warm water) to help relieve a sore throat.

4. Humidifier

Alt text Kids' coughs: How to tell when it's seriousA humidifier in your child’s room can help manage cough and cold symptoms by keeping their airway moist, says Friesen. Cool or warm mist? It doesn’t really matter, says Mankal, although a cool mist is generally better for a barky, seal-like croup cough. “For croup, you can also bundle your child in a blanket and take them outside to breathe in some cool air for a few minutes,” she says.

5. Sponge bath

“There’s reasonable evidence to suggest that a sponge bath with lukewarm water, combined with Tylenol or Advil, is more likely to bring a fever down within an hour than medication alone,” says Friesen. However, if your child is already feeling chilled, skip the sponging.

6. Extra pillows

Add an extra pillow to elevate your child’s head and help clear congestion, says Mankal.

7. Vicks VapoRub

Is that strongly scented stuff from your own childhood a good idea? While it’s not exactly a “home remedy,” the over-the-counter ointment is still quite popular as a topical option.  “There’s a small amount of evidence to suggest that it can improve symptoms at bedtime,” says Friesen, who sometimes uses it on his own kids, ages two and six.

The bottom line? Coughs and colds are a fact of life. And while there’s no magic approach to zap them instantly, you can manage their symptoms and help your child get some healing rest. “Comfort is your ultimate goal,” says Friesen.

When to see a doctor

Signs that you’re not dealing with a run-of-the-mill cough or cold and your child should be seen by a healthcare provider include wheezing; laboured or fast breathing (nostrils are flared, skin is stretched tight over the ribcage and a prescribed inhaler isn’t helping); a cough that leads to choking, vomiting or trouble breathing; difficulty waking up; and infrequent urination due to dehydration. These symptoms could be red flags that you’re dealing with influenza or another serious infection. When it comes to temperature, you should take your child to a doctor if their fever lasts longer than 72 hours, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Read more:
Daycare germs: what you need to know
How to know when your kid is too sick for school

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