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Dealing with colds in kids: what works, what doesn't

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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A few weeks ago, I was strangely relieved when my 10-year-old's sore throat and fever turned out to be strep. At least, I figured, he can get antibiotics and will feel better in a day -- which he did.

For colds, unfortunately, there's little parents can do to take away their child's cough, runny nose, and overall feeling of crumminess. The Food and Drug Administration recommends against giving children under age four any sort of over-the-counter cold remedy because of the risk of potentially life-threatening side effects. And experts say even for older kids, the cough suppressants and decongestants don't do much to relieve symptoms.

"There's just not much parents can do to relieve symptoms or prevent their kids from getting colds," said Dr. Ronald Turner, a professor of pediatrics and associate dean for clinical research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

This from a man who spends his days collecting nasal discharge from cold sufferers to measure the virus load.

I won't take "not much" for an answer, so I pushed him, first on cold prevention tips. What about washing hands frequently? "A couple of older studies suggest that the practice could work in a school or day care setting," Turner told me, "but it has a limited impact overall, and it doesn't prevent colds from spreading at home."

How about using alcohol hand sanitizers like Purell? Not worth much to stop colds, he answered.

Disinfecting surfaces that I sneeze on? "While common cold viruses can live on surfaces for two or three days," Turner said, "researchers haven't shown that people can actually pick up colds from touching these surfaces."

In studies, scientists usually infect volunteers with colds by swabbing their inner nostrils with viruses. In real life, colds probably spread by hand to hand contact and by people getting sneezed or coughed on directly.

Nutritional supplements like vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea -- despite having some immune system benefits -- haven't been shown to be any good at preventing colds or making them go away quicker, said Turner. Ditto for hot tea and chicken soup.

And some alternative remedies, like Zicam nasal swabs, have raised warning bells from the FDA for being linked to rare side effects such as an irreversible loss of smell.

The only remedy that works: topical decongestant nasal drops to relieve a stuffed-up nose. Oh, and Turner says older antihistamines -- the kind, like Contac and Benadryl, that make you drowsy -- have been shown in studies to help reduce nasal discharge by about 25 to 30 percent.

They're not, though, approved by the FDA for use in colds, and it's questionable whether they work well in kids. Also, the newer non-drowsy antihistamines don't have this effect, so parents may have to choose between a tired cranky kid and a coughing cranky kid.

If you're taking care of a kid with a cold, tell me what remedies work for you.

(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on The Boston Globe's Daily Dose blog.)