Articles on adoption, foster care, & pediatrics

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Coughs, Congestion, and Colds

"There's only one way to treat the common cold - with contempt"

    - the esteemed Sir William Osler, MD

Ah, the common cold. Common, indeed - the average preschooler has six to 10 colds per year, with each illness lasting 10 to 14 days. And the sad truth is, Dr. Osler's 1890s-era wisdom is still largely correct. He went on to say, "... toss the pills into the ocean. So much the better for mankind, so much the worse for the fish"!

For children less than 5, there just isn't any safe, effective treatment available to treat the common cold. None of the common cold medicines can convincingly outperform sugar water, and the FDA has warned of a number of serious adverse reactions when used in children under 2 (our advice: don't risk it). But that doesn't seem to keep cold remedies from being a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

We all know what a cold looks and feels like, although we sometimes seem to forget when it comes to our own kids. Signs of something more serious like pneumonia, bronchiolitis, or asthma could be:

  • Prolonged or high fever (more than 2-3 days, or >102 degrees)
  • Breathing fast (count breaths over one full minute while quiet or asleep; infants should breathe <50-60 times per minute, toddlers <40x/min, older children <30x/min)
  • Working hard to breathe (heaving chest, visible rib movement, nasal flaring, grunting)
  • Getting dehydrated (not drinking enough, no tears/drool, less than 3 urinations/day)
  • Acting really ill or lethargic

If those are happening, please let us know - if you're travelling, we may want to start the zithromax, and possibly find someone to evaluate in person. We do have a lower threshold to start antibiotics when we can't see kids ourselves.

Other Complications:

If nasal congestion and wet cough last more than 2-3 weeks then it may be bacterial sinusitis, which can be helped by antibiotics as well; the color/consistency of the snot doesn't tell us if this is viral or bacterial, unfortunately. Ear infections can be a complication of colds, often marked by new fever and irritability when a cold seems to be running its course. Ear tugging and fiddling is not a reliable sign of ear infection in preverbal children, unfortunately.

Let's review the common medications and treatments for the common cold:

  • Decongestants (pseudephedrine, etc) - Somewhat effective for daytime relief in adults and school-age kids, but they just don't work in young kids. Besides, does putting your ill, sleepless child on over-the-counter speed seem like a good idea?
  • Decongestant Nasal Sprays (Afrin, Dristan, etc) - These work for short-term congestion emergencies (less than 2 days at a time) but can be nasally addictive, causing "rebound congestion" when you stop using them. Not routinely recommended, and not for infants/toddlers.
  • Antihistamines (Benadryl, etc) - A good treatment for allergies, but colds are caused by a viruses; useful only for their sedative effect in desperate sleepless situations. Beware - 1 in 5 kids gets LOOPY on benadryl.
  • Cough Suppressants (dextromethorphan, codeine, etc) - It sure is tricky suppressing that cough reflex without putting your child in a coma. Safe doses of codeine and it's synthetic cousin, dextromethorphan, don't seem to be that effective at suppressing this vital reflex. Codeine is also just not safe enough to use in kids anymore, especially in Ethiopian adoptees. That said, in older children with a lingering, nagging, non-productive cough, you might try some Delsym (long-acting dextromethorphan).
  • Expectorants (guaifenesin) - These don't work in young children, who don't need any help making copious secretions. In older kids and adults, they may make phlegm thinner, but so does drinking lots of fluids. Mucinex is a single-ingredient, extended release form of this for older kids and adults.
  • Tylenol or Ibuprofen - IF your child is uncomfortable from fever, or in pain, these can help. Otherwise you may be suppressing the body's immune response.
  • Antibiotics - No. Nyet. Bu.
  • Zinc - Yuck. Zinc lozenges and zinc up the nose have not shown to be effective in kids. But zinc deficiency is associated with poor immune function (and many adoptees are zinc deficient). There's lots of zinc in high-protein foods like meats, seafood, milk, and fortified breakfast cereals. A "complete" multivitamin with minerals can also help.
  • Vitamin C - Controversial. Large doses may shorten symptoms in adults, but megadoses are not clearly safe in kids, and can cause diarrhea. Like zinc, let's just make sure you're getting enough, and some extra at the first signs of a cold may help.
  • Echinacea - Recent study done here found no clear benefit at reducing symptoms in kids. Bummer.
  • Probiotics - Lactobacillus milks, active culture yogurts, and probiotic supplements are emerging as a good thing, although definitive studies are still pending, and it's not at all clear that they treat colds. They may be effective at preventing colds, allergies, and diarrhea, with a host of other potential benefits.
  • Andrographis (Kan Jang) - Herbal remedy that's all the rage in Scandinavia. Some smaller studies showing benefit in colds and flu. Promising, but larger studies may sink this ship as well.
  • Umcka drops - Ancient Zulu Homeopathic Geranium-ness. Germans love this stuff, available here through Nature's Way. Some promise for sinus, throat, and bronchial infections, large high-quality studies are lacking, so who knows, really? If you enjoy taking the latest natural sounding probable placebos, give it a try.
  • The Stuff That Teacher Invented Who Never Ever Got Another Cold (Airborne) - It was on Oprah, so it must work. This contains Lonicera, Forsythia, Schizonepeta, Ginger, Chinese Vitex, Isatis Root, Echinacea, along with vitamins, zinc and magnesium. Phew. Feels a bit faddish to me, with a few too many ingredients.
  • Whiskey - Dr. Osler's preferred cold remedy: "hang your hat on the bedpost, get into bed, start drinking whisky. When you see two hats stop!" Not an option for the kids, but what you do with the colds they give us is entirely up to you.
  • Humidification - Unclear benefit from humidifiers and vaporizers, but they feel good for many, and may keep nasal secretions easier to clear. If you use these, clean them obsessively, as they are effective at aerosolizing molds and bacteria.
  • Menthol, Eucalyptus, VapoRub - Studies show that people think these are working even if they aren't. You can put them in the vaporizer, plug a gizmo into a wall outlet, or rub them onto your child. That may be the key ... with the massage, you get the healing power of relaxation and parental tender loving care.
  • Chicken Soup - Yup, small studies and grandmothers actually agree on this one.
  • Nasal Saline Drops/Sprays and Bulb Suction - This really can help infants and toddlers, who can't effectively blow their nose. Infants, in particular, have tiny nasal passages that they depend on for sleeping and eating. You can buy nasal saline or make it with 1/2 tsp salt in 1 cup warm water. Put 1-2 drops in each nostril before suctioning to help clear dry nasal secretions. A bulb syringe is most effective if you squeeze it, put the tip in one nostril, and pinch the nose to get a good seal on the side you're suctioning and close off the side you're not, and SLUUURP. Don't go too crazy with this, as you don't want to overly irritate the nasal mucous membranes.
  • Plenty of Rest and Plenty of Fluids - Yes. Da. Shi.
  • and finally ... Tincture of Time - The ONLY cure for the common cold. Support the immune system in its good work with rest, fluids, love, and attention, and otherwise stay out of the way.

Updated 8/07