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Don’t Fall for These Myths About Common Wintertime Illnesses

By Christine Climer

Many parents dread wintertime because of the illnesses that tend to be more common during the cold season. We are barraged at every turn by misinformation in the media, fueling our anxieties.

An objective look at some of this season’s claims shows much less to worry about than many health reports in the news might lead you to believe. Don’t fall prey to these common myths about common wintertime illnesses.

High fevers cause brain damage and seizures.
False! A fever cannot cause brain damage unless it climbs over about 107º Fahrenheit. Fever can create febrile seizures. These are caused by how fast your child’s body temperature rises, not by how high the temperature goes.

Fever helps our immune systems get rid of infection, so in most cases, it is best not to interfere. Your child’s behavior is the best indicator of how severe his illness is -- not the number on the thermometer.

Fever increases the amount of fluid your child needs, so keep him well hydrated. (See Karen Prior’s suggestions for increasing fluid intake in our Ask the Experts section) Your child’s appetite may be limited during fever, but resist the urge to offer sugary treats to tempt him to eat. Focus on fluids, and offer small portions of nutritious foods frequently.

Kids generally feel bad when they run fever, so listen to those little bodies. Keep them in bed or another quiet, restful place until the fever is gone. Low stress is key to a healthy immune system. Avoid alcohol rubs, unnecessary baths or other activities that might cause the shivers.

Nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, selenium and zinc are known to support the body’s immune function. You might choose an appropriate multivitamin and mineral supplement, or simple add these nutrients to your diet. Include plenty of orange and green produce, whole grains and nuts, dairy products or meats.

Herbalists often recommend herbs that have historically been used for fever, including catnip, yarrow and feverfew. Just remember that herbs are medicine too. Take care to follow the instructions printed on the label or given by your health care provider.

Ear infections always require antibiotics.
False! Viruses can cause ear infections as often as bacteria – and antibiotics do not work against viruses. In fact, many of the bacteria that commonly cause ear infections have learned how to survive antibiotics, so many medications do not work against bacteria anymore either.

Because the body can fight most ear infections all by itself, many doctors choose a “watchful waiting” approach. This approach prevents antibiotic resistance from worsening. The doctor simply waits it out a few days, then checks to see if the situation is improving or if it has resolved without any treatment.

A couple of drops of olive oil warmed to body temperature and dropped into the ear canal helps equalize pressure in the ear and eases pain. Herbalists may recommend adding mullein or garlic to the oil, straining before use. Applying warm or cold packs (depending on your child’s preference) or massaging gently around the ear can also be helpful. Lying down increases pain and pressure within the middle ear, so try to keep your child as upright as possible.

A few more strategies: Some parents find that a visit to a pediatric chiropractor can help ear infections. Babies who are still nursing or bottle-feeding may prefer to eat smaller amounts at more frequent intervals. And finally, research has recently shown that people who consume probiotic bacteria (lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) in their diets are less likely to get ear infections.

Cold medicines, antibiotics and humidification relieve congestion and coughs. There are times when this statement may be either true or false.

A cough isn’t just a nuisance; it is an important reflex that keeps irritants and germs from getting into the lungs. While a cough may seem bothersome, it can keep mucus drainage from getting down into the tiny places in the lungs where it can contribute to worsening infection and interfere with your child’s ability to get enough oxygen.

Most respiratory infections in children are viral, so unless your laboratory results indicate otherwise, do not pressure your doctor for antibiotics. It’s also important to recognize that discharge from runny noses may change color. Yellow-green mucus is actually part of the normal course of an illness and does not necessarily mean that your child has a sinus infection, unless it persists longer than two weeks.

If irritation and inflammation create a dry cough that interferes with sleep, sometimes a cough suppressant can be helpful at bedtime. If your child has a wet cough because of mucus, however, cough suppressants are undesirable. Antihistamines are commonly given to dry up mucus. If your child has a lot of mucus production caused by allergies, antihistamines can sometimes offer some relief -- but they just aren’t effective with colds. They thicken the mucus, making it harder for your child to clear it out of the airway.

Both cough suppressants and antihistamines make kids drowsy, which can be more of a nuisance during the day than the cough or congestion themselves. Decongestants can offer comfort if your child is so congested that he cannot eat or sleep, but these medications are notorious for hyper-activating children -- so bedtime may be a challenge.

Breathing humidified air can soothe airways and help expel mucus, but be cautious about running a vaporizer or humidifier in your child’s bedroom and never run them constantly. Not only can the equipment harbor germs, but the high humidity they create contributes to the growth of molds and dust mites. If your child is sensitive to these, her symptoms may actually worsen. A safer approach is to run humidifiers and vaporizers intermittently, or steam up the bathroom by running a hot shower and take your child into the bathroom to breathe the air for 10 to 15 minutes.

If your child has a barking cough, try taking him outside to breathe cool air for about 10 to 15 minutes. Saline nasal irrigation also relieves congestion. You can make your own nose spray at home.

1 teaspoon canning and pickling salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups purified water

Bring water to a boil; add dry ingredients and dissolve.Cool to room temperature. Store covered for up to 48 hours.

Instill a few drops into each nostril and then suction with a bulb syringe, which can often be found on the ear care or baby care aisles of your pharmacy.

Drinking plenty of fluids is the most important thing to help clear mucus and keep mucous membranes moist. Warm teas and broths make soothing choices. As mentioned above, plenty of immune-supporting nutrients are vital to healing. Vitamin C is also an antihistamine, so make sure your children get plenty, especially if they have allergies.

People who consume probiotics are less likely to experience either respiratory infections or allergies. A gentle upper body massage after a warm bath helps children relax, soothes soreness and increases circulation. Sleeping with the head elevated is helpful.

Your herbalist may recommend herbs that have been historically used to soothe irritated mucus membranes, expel mucus, clear infection and open airways. These may include things like mint, eucalyptus, horehound, thyme, mullein, evening primrose and echinacea.

Children with allergies are more susceptible to respiratory infections. Keep environmental allergens low by vacuuming and dusting frequently, changing air filters monthly, using allergen barriers on beds and pillows, washing bedding weekly in hot water and maintaining humidity below 50 percent.

When should you be concerned?

Seek medical care immediately if your child:

• has a seizure lasting longer than five minutes or a seizure for the first time
• runs any fever at all and is under 2 months old
• has a temperature of at least 101º and is 2 to 4 months old
• has a temperature over 105º
• does not stop crying, seems confused or is unable to wake up
• seems to have a stiff neck when the head is bent towards the tummy
• has a blood-red or purple rash
• is having difficulty breathing (gasping for air, flesh between ribs sucks in when the child inhales, flaring nostrils) or takes more than 60 breaths per minute
• has unusual drooling (i.e., not related to teething)
• is coughing up blood or has bloody stools
• has blue- or gray-colored lips
• has signs of dehydration (dry mouth, no tears, no urine in the past eight hours)
• is under 12 months old, has diarrhea and has vomited three or more times in 24 hours
• has diarrhea more than eight times in the past eight hours

Call your health care provider during office hours if your child:

• is under 2 year old and has a temperature over 104º
• complains of burning with urination
• has been running fever for more than 72 hours
• seemed to be getting better but then started getting worse
• had a fever that went away for at least 24 hours, then returned
• is under 3 months old and has had a cough for more than three days
• has had diarrhea or a cough for more than two weeks
• has been vomiting for more than 24 hours
• has had a green/yellow runny nose for more than two weeks

© Christine Climer

Christine Climer is a registered nurse with experience in pulmonary disease, pediatrics, home health and hospice services. Also trained in early childhood education, she is currently executive director and child care nurse for an early childhood health promotion organization. She lives with her husband and three children (including a set of twins) in Texas and enjoys researching health issues and gardening.

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Aronson S, et al. (1997). Model Child Care Health Policies, Third Edition. Elk Grove Village, Illinois: American Academy of Pediatrics.

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Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, “A GUIDE FOR PARENTS QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS, Runny Nose (with green or yellow mucus),” Get Smart Campaign (.pdf)

Hatakka K, et al., “Effect of long term consumption of probiotic milk on infections in children attending day care centres: double blind, randomised trial,” BMJ. 2001;322(7298):1327.

Johnston C, Martin L and Cai X, “Antihistamine effect of supplemental ascorbic acid and neutrophil chemotaxis,” J Am Coll Nutr. 1992;11(2):172-6.

National Institutes of Health Clinical About Dietary Supplements:

Rabago D, et al., “Efficacy of daily hypertonic saline nasal irrigation among patients with sinusitis: a randomized controlled trial,” J Fam Pract. 2002;51(12):1049-55.

Stanford University Medical Center, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, Parent Care Topics:

Sutter A, et al., “Antihistamines for the common cold,” Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(3):CD001267.

Turchet P, et al., “Effect of fermented milk containing the probiotic Lactobacillus casei DN-114001 on winter infections in free-living elderly subjects: a randomised, controlled pilot study,” J Nutr Health Aging. 2003;7(2):75-7.

University of Maryland Medical Center, Department of Family Medicine, Complementary Medicine Program:

Whaley L and Wong D. (1991). Nursing Care of Infants and Children, Fourth Edition. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby-Year Book, Inc.


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