BY LINDA STEVENSON, PhD, RN, FNP-C, PEDIAQ SENIOR NURSE PRACTITIONER
Tis the season for stuffy noses, scratchy throats, fevers and in general not feeling well, so how do you know if your child has a cold or the flu? The symptoms can overlap which can be confusing and makes it hard to know what to do.
Colds are upper respiratory infections most commonly causes by the highly contagious rhinovirus. They can occur anytime during the year but typically increase in the fall and winter. Colds are a leading cause of missed school days, over 22 million a year according to the Centers for Disease Control. Symptoms are usually mild but can last for up to 2 weeks.
The flu, influenza, is another respiratory illness and is most commonly occurring from the fall to spring season. You can get the flu just as you do a cold, by coming in contact with droplets from coughs and sneezes in the air or on surfaces.
How do you know what your child has?
Colds are most contagious during the first 2-3 days, the best time to stay at home and not spread the germs. Remember not to share personal items such as utensils and towels. This is hard for young children to remember. Of course, the old stand-by hand washing is essential and when you can’t, then use hand sanitizer. The small individual sanitizer wipes are great for lunch kits so your child can clean their hands before eating. Teach your child from an early age to cough and sneeze into their elbow. Wipe toddler toys down daily with a sanitizing wipe. Let them dry for at least 1 hour before a child uses them again. Don’t keep your house too hot in the winter, it dries out nasal passages and increases the risk of getting upper respiratory infections.
Treating colds in infants and toddlers involves keeping their nose free of mucus by using saline drops then suctioning their nose with a bulb suction or the Nose Frieda. Do this before each feeding and before sleeping. Older children can use saline spray then blow their noses several times a day. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used for fever or achiness. Have your child drink lots of fluids; this will help keep the mucus thin and easier to remove.
The best way to treat the flu is to prevent it. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children ages 6 months to 18 years receive the flu vaccine. If your child is unable to receive the flu vaccine for a health reason such as allergy to the vaccine, then it is important particularly with infants that everyone else in the home get vaccinated in order to help protect (cocoon) the infant. If you suspect your child has the flu see your pediatrician for testing particularly if they are under age 2 years. Watch young children for labored breathing, irritability, and refusal to eat or drink, or trouble waking up or responding to you. This would indicate a more serious problem and means a call to your pediatrician or trip to a pediatric emergency room is indicated. A severe cough with a persistent high fever, over 101-102F, for 3 days could mean pneumonia.
Both colds and flu need lots of fluids, rest, and the fevers treated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
What about the “natural” products you hear about? Are they safe for children?
Zinc is often said to decrease the length and severity of colds if taken within the first 24 hours of the start of symptoms. Zinc taken orally in low doses daily for at least 5 months has been shown to reduce the number of colds in children. Check with your pediatrician before giving to your child. Intranasal zinc has been linked to irreversible loss of the sense of smell and should not be given to children.
Vitamin C even when taken regularly has not been shown to reduce the likelihood of getting a cold. But it has been shown in research studies that if Vitamin C is taken daily it can reduce cold symptoms. Do not give children high doses of Vitamin C, it can cause nausea and diarrhea.
Echinacea, an herbal supplement, has not been shown, in the few studies available with children, to prevent colds. In one large research study children who took Echinacea had an increased risk of developing rashes.
Probiotics, a type of beneficial bacteria, were found in a 2011 research study with children to help prevent colds if taken on a regular (daily) basis. But that study has not been replicated.
So what does all this mean? Be sure your child eats healthy, drinks a lot of fluids, washes their hands, gets good sleep and stays away from those who are coughing and sneezing. Not easy to do!