Studies show that young children will catch a cold as many as 8 times a year. Their under-developed immune systems make them more susceptible to viruses. Babies and toddlers are also more likely to put things in their mouths or rub their eyes (one of the fastest ways for viruses to spread), and daycare and pre-school are notorious hotbeds for disease. One kid gets sick, and soon the whole class (and then, the whole family) is down with the sniffles.
Getting sick is part of growing up, and the good news is that every exposure to a virus trains our kids’ immune system to identify and fight off the bugs. However, there are ways to boost their defenses right now.
1. Understand how a cold works.
Colds can run from 6 days to 2 weeks. In general, a cold is most contagious in the first 3 days. Colds can “start slow” and kids may not immediately tell you when they’re feeling down. The first symptoms include sore throat, so take note if they eat less or become fussy when they’re eating or drinking milk On the third day or so they’ll develop a runny nose. Only about 50% of kids who have colds develop a fever. The cough usually emerges at the end of the first week.
2. Talk to your doctor before giving medicine.
While there are plenty of over-the-counter cough and cold medications, it’s best to ask your doctor before giving anything to a baby or toddler. In fact, the FDA warns against OTC’s to babies and toddlers. Some kids develop allergic reactions or suffer from severe side effects (including difficulty breathing and hallucinations). Your doctor can tell you what to look out for, and can adjust the prescription according to your child’s health history (for example, there are some medicines that should not be taken by kids who have a heart murmur or a genetic disposition towards allergies).
Some doctors are also against giving medicine if it’s a viral infection. They prefer letting the cold run its course, and instead boosting the immune system (which will naturally eat the virus) with plenty of fluids, vitamin C, and nourishing food. Generally, antibiotics are only prescribed for bacterial infections.
Don’t give cough suppressants to your child, since the cough is the natural way for the body to expel mucus.
3. Teach your child the right way to wash hands.
Wringing them under the water isn’t enough. Kids need to use an anti-bacterial soap and rub hands—even between the fingers—for at least 30 seconds. (Have them sing “Happy Birthday” or a similar song while they soap.) Also make it a habit to bring hand sanitizers to the playground or daycare. This can reduce your child’s risk for catching a virus by as much as 50%.
4. Ditch the cold myths
You can’t catch a cold just because you’re, uhm, cold. A jacket can keep your child comfortable in chilly weather, but studies show that being wet and cold doesn’t increase your risk of getting sick. Plus, the risk of getting a cold from sneezing or kissing are actually low. Germs can travel through the air, but not very efficiently. And, they actually need to enter an opening (the eyes or nose) to possibly trigger infection. Kids are more likely to get colds from touching an infected toy and then putting their hands into their mouths.
5. Serve chicken soup
This is one old wives’ tale that actually works. Scientists have discovered that chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory properties. Plus, the soup is easy to eat and can soothe a scratchy throat, helps lower risk for dehydration, and is chock full of the vitamins from the vegetables.
6. Stock up on saline solution.
Saline solution can help unstuff your child’s nose, making him more comfortable and making it easier for him to sleep longer and get the rest he needs. Saline nasal solution can be squirted directly into each nostril (then use a bulb syringe to remove the mucus) or inhaled through a nebulizer. Cool-mist dehumidifiers can also prevent nasal secretions from becoming too thick. Just be sure to clean the dehumidier every day to prevent contamination from molds or bacteria.
7. Watch for fever and other symptoms.
Call your doctor if your child has a high fever for more than three days, and shows signs of earache (placing his hand near his ear, or pulling his ear). Wheezing sounds or a dry cough that gets worse may also be a sign of asthma.
Also report any excessive crying, or changes in behavior or demeanor: listlessness, refusal to play or interact, and other signs that your child feels really bad. Listen to your gut instinct. You know your child best, and know when he’s under great discomfort or pain.