It's common. It's annoying. And despite thousands of years of searching for remedies, there's still no cure. But here's the good news: a few simple measures can keep your child safe and comfortable.
First off, skip the remedies, supplements and pharmaceuticals, they have been proven not to help and can even do harm. Everything you need can be found right at home. But first, let's start with a brief understanding of what's going on with a cold, so we can learn how to fix it:
What causes a cold? Colds are caused by viruses. There are more than 100 different cold-causing viruses, so even though you may become immune to one after you catch it, there are still many more to catch! Some people with high exposure, like me, have become immune to so many that we rarely catch colds anymore. Other people will catch them spread throughout their lives. While you may be exposed to thousands of virus particles at a time, as few as one single particle is enough to give you a full-blown cold. So as careful as you may be, it's virtually impossible not to catch them here and there.
IMPORTANT: What causes cold symptoms? The actual symptoms of the cold (congestion, runny nose, cough, etc), are NOT caused by the virus itself. In fact, the virus only infects a very small number of the cells that line your nose, causing mild damage at most. What you really notice is your immune response: Your runny nose is your body’s way of flushing out the virus. The congestion is caused by inflammation—swelling from your immune system sending more white cells to the area to clean up the infection. Unfortunately this makes it hard to breathe. All this inflammation can also stimulate your nerve fibers, causing pain. Sneezing and coughing help expel the virus from your body. Fever heats up the area, helping drainage, inflammation and killing of the offending virus.
How to treat the common cold:
It's quite simply all about drainage. Your immune system will do a fine job of halting the virus in its tracks. But you can help it by then flushing the virus out of your system. Here are the key components:
- Hydration. Hydrated mucus moves better. Since mucus is what pushes the virus out of your body, it needs to remain mobile and not get dried out. If you are struggling with hydration, see my hydration page.
- Steam showers work great for all ages, including infants, and help hydrate and loosen that mucus up. Shoot for twice daily. For older kids and adults, you can also boil water, put it in a bowl and put your head over the bowl, covering you and the bowl with a towel. Nice mini steam bath.
- Humidifiers can help prevent excessive drying of the mucus membranes. Just be careful to make sure they are properly maintained including regular cleanings, and not run too high because we don't want to encourage mold growth.
- Clean air, regularly. The respiratory tract uses cilia, little hairs that move sheets of mucus up and out of your body. If you are exposed to airway irritants like fragrance, smoke, or other inhaled particles on a regular basis, the inflamed airway and injured cilia won't move that mucus as well.
- Rest. Stress can increase your susceptibility to a cold and its consequences, like pneumonia. Don't wear down your system by expending all your energy running around and stressing yourself out. Relax, put your feet up, have some comfort food and read a good book. Periodically get up and go for a short walk (staying warm/bundled) to keep your blood flowing.
- Sinus/nasal rinses. Blowing your nose can only get so much out, but rinsing does wonders. For infants, use saline drops (available at pharmacies) followed by suction with the "Nose Frida," a high-powered swedish booger sucker available at my office or New Seasons. For older kids and adults, use the Sinus Rinse product by Neil Med (available at pharmacies).
- What about dairy? It seems to be urban myth that dairy worsens nasal mucus and should be avoided during colds. Research has simply not found this not to be the case. Remember, mucus is not necessarily a bad thing, it's what gets rid of the virus. I personally don't worry about dairy too much one way or another. If it bothers you or your child during illnesses, maybe hold off for a bit. But if not, there's research finding that it's perfectly fine to consume during colds if you find it hard to lay off.
- Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, decongestants. There is certainly a limited role for these medications to help with comfort due to headache, sinus pain, fever, etc. It's important to note that they do not help kids heal any faster, and may even delay healing to a minor degree, but they can certainly help with comfort and hydration, which are important if you are struggling with either. For more on fever management, see my webpage here.
Signs to watch for
Call for an appointment if:
- symptoms are severe
- symptoms last longer than 2 weeks
- fever more than 3-4 days
- significant dehydration
- difficulty breathing (but not in distress)
Call urgently or go to the ER if:
- infant less than 3 months with fever
- respiratory distress (gasping for air, collapsing chest, rapid or shallow breathing)
- decreased responsiveness
- child looks really ill to you (something not right)
Common questions about common colds:
- How do I boost my child's immune system? First off, you don't. As we noted above in what causes cold symptoms, it is the immune system itself causing the symptoms. "Boosting" that response will only worsen symptoms. Suppressing your immune response would actually reduce cold symptoms, but that would also reduce your ability to fight off the cold. So what we're going for is the right immune response. Trust your immune system to pick the right level of response for the level of threat, and focus instead on comfort.
- What are the best "over-the-counter" cold medicines? Cold medicines have been found to be not helpful at best, and harmful at worst. Don't pay attention to the claims written by advertisers, just leave them on the shelf.
- Natural/alternative medical remedies. There are studies evaluating the use of many common remedies, such as echinacea, eucalyptus, zinc, homeopathy, vitamin C, etc., with unimpressive results. Just like pharmaceuticals, some find little to no benefit, some find harm. Generally, if something is truly and consistently useful, results are not mixed.
- If all these things don't really work, why do so many people swear by them? There are many reasons, but the biggest is this: colds pass on their own. People usually start a treatment on their worst day of illness, which is right when they were about to start getting better anyway. So when lo and behold they get better, it appears as if the treatment was magically responsible for the improvement. In an industry with countless different remedies, if there were one that consistently worked, everyone would use it all the time and no one would call in sick anymore… If you want to stick with truly natural medicine, which is my inclination, let your immune system handle it just as it is designed to do. It works, and it works well. Messing with it in ways we don't fully understand, unless we see obvious benefit, is just not worth it to me.
Bottom line? Whether it's cough suppressants, expectorants, DayQuil, NyQuil, Benadryl, immune boosters, echinacea, vitamin C, or eucalyptus, just leave them on the shelf and spend your money on a nice warm bowl of soup and a good movie. Then, follow the tips above. And if things don't seem to be going right, come see me—good chance there may be something more than the common cold that I could address.
For urgent needs, same-day appointments are available Monday through Friday. Please call as early in the day as possible, the more notice we have the easier it is to fit everyone in.
Need help outside of office hours?
Firstly, if your child has an emergency, please call 911 or go directly to the ER - they will contact us if needed once your child has been evaluated.
Urgent Care centers can also be helpful when something needs to be seen outside of office hours but it's not an emergency.
For our list of preferred Urgent Cares and ERs, see our resources page.
And if you have something that might need urgent attention but you're not sure/don't know what to do, we can help: