Handling Colds in Little Kids: Tips from a Pediatric Nurse

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Below, some common cold questions and tips from someone who’s been in the trenches--both at the hospital and home.

Tis the season for sneezing and wheezing: Fall is now here and that means cold season has officially arrived.  As a pediatric nurse, I can’t tell you the number of runny, crusty little noses, coughs, and worried parents I have seen over the years. Did you know that the average child has 6 to 8 colds a year that last at least 10 days on average with coughs lasting as long as four weeks? As much as we all wish we had a cure for the common cold, there is none. The best treatment is supportive care with lots of TLC.  No medicine, prescription or over the counter (OTC), will help a child get over a cold more quickly. You may have read articles recently about this very topic, the American Academy of Pediatrics has research supporting not giving OTC cold medications for children age 4 and under and only under the care of your pediatrician from age 4 to 6.  These medications in young children can have potentially serious side effects like rapid heart rates, and they are not effective. Children over the age of 6 may take pediatric OTC cold medications, but if they are used, parents need to be sure they are made for children and the dosing is carefully followed. So, what can you do to make your little one feels better?  

My name is Cindy Love and I am a certified pediatric nurse practitioner at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. And I’m here to answer that question. In addition to being a nurse, I am also a mom. Parenting can be hard work and I am passionate about supporting caregivers. As a nurse, I have worked in all areas of pediatric medicine for over 30 years (from pediatric intensive care to well child care). For the last 16 years, I have also facilitated support groups for moms and infants and moms and toddlers through IU Health to provide medical information and emotional support. The Mother Connection and Toddler Time Groups at IU Health strive to cover all the issues of parenting. 

Below, some common cold questions and tips from someone who’s been in the trenches--both at the hospital and home.

How should I treat my child’s cold?             

  • Offer your child lots of liquids, especially if your child has a fever. Liquids will thin secretions making little noses less stuffy, soothe irritated throats and prevent dehydration if your child is feverish.  If your child is nursing or bottle feeding and younger than 6 months, breast milk or formula is all your little one needs unless your pediatrician recommends other fluids. Older children can be encouraged to increase fluids by offering fruits, ice chips, popsicles, and most importantly water. Avoiding dairy products because of congestion is actually a myth. Dairy does not increase mucous production and dairy products can often soothe throats while also providing needed extra calories when a child is not eating.   
  • Use a bulb syringe to suction you your child’s nose if necessary.  Infants are not able to eat well with a stuffy nose and most children are not able to blow their nose until about age 2.  You may use saline nose drops to loosen mucous in the nose to help. 
  • Use petroleum jelly or a heavy ointment around the nose to protect the skin from irritation from wiping.  Chapped lips and red noses are uncomfortable.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer in your child’s bedroom. This will keep mucus draining better, making it easier for your child to breath. 
  •  Colds often cause drainage in the throat and coughs. If your child is age 1 year or older, try a teaspoon of honey. Honey has been proven to be effective for cough relief. It helps soothe an irritated throat and is safer than cough syrup.  
  • Elevate the head of your child’s bed.  This may help drainage down the back of a child’s throat which causes coughs and irritation.  Do not put pillows or other items in the crib of a child under the age of 1 to raise their head.  Safe sleep should be a priority. 
  • Give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or if your child is older than 6 months you may use ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), to ease discomfort or fever. Carefully follow dosage recommendations and use the dose measuring tool.

When do I call the doctor?

  • If your child is 3 months old or younger with fever or cold symptoms.
  • If your child begins pulling at ears or becomes increasingly fussy.
  • If there is yellow or green drainage from your child’s nose for more than 10 days.
  • If there is a worsening cough or wheezing.
  • If your child develops a fever after a few days of cold symptoms or begins to feel worse after several days.
  • If your child refuses to drink.

How do I prevent colds?

  • Hand washing is the number one way to prevent illness.
  • Wipe down your child’s toys occasionally. Try throwing plastic toys into the top rack of the dishwasher.
  • Show your child good hygiene by blowing into a tissue and turning your head to cough rather than coughing and sneezing into your hands.
  • Make sure that your child has a healthy diet, is sleeping enough.
  • Do not smoke around your child. Children in homes where parents smoke have many more colds and ear infections.  Insist smokers change their clothing before holding your child.  Clothing holds smoke and is a second-hand smoke exposure for your child.

-- By Cindy Love, PNP
   Indiana University Health

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