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10 Natural Cold and Flu Remedies for Your Child

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Every mom wishes colds weren't so “common,” and that a magic wand could make the ickiness disappear. Natural remedies sound appealing, but the number of choices and the safety of your options can feel overwhelming to stressed parents. Jerry Rubin, a Denver pediatrician and the author of Naturally Healthy Kids: Integrating Conventional and Holistic Treatments for Common Illnesses of Children, advises an “all-inclusive” approach that relies on medications when necessary, but also makes use of these 10 natural remedies—and preventative measures—that will soothe young ones until the last sniffle is behind them.

1. Herbal Echinacea

essential oil and coneflowers on wooden rustic table

Rubin recommends the herbal remedy Echinacea, derived from a type of coneflower, as a season-long preventative measure against colds and flu. In his 20 years of practice, Rubin has observed that “colds are clearly shorter and less frequent” when his patients use it. Echinacea is available for kids in the form of liquid, chewy drops, or tablets. Rubin advises giving one dose a day Monday through Friday and then taking the weekends “off” to prevent your child from building up a tolerance that will undermine Echinacea’s effectiveness.

2. Vitamin C Supplements

vitamins

Vitamin C supplements are less helpful in preventing colds, but they are a good way to help boost the body’s own defenses to shorten them. Rubin recommends supplements as opposed to a vitamin C-rich diet for two reasons: first, it’s virtually impossible to get enough through food to give the tissue-repairing benefits that make it so effective, and second, citrus fruits—the main vitamin C-rich food we reach for—can actually stimulate the body to produce more mucous. That’s hardly the goal when a cold strikes!

3. Solid Hand-Washing Habits

Little girl washing hands

The goal in hand-washing is to prevent the further spread of an infection to other members of the family, though solid hygiene habits will also help lessen the number of bugs your tot picks up. Washing hands with water and soap dissolves and clears away the secretions—from the nose and mouth—that germs survive and thrive in. Surprisingly to most parents, the most disease-defeating factor with hand-washing is the duration (aim for a full 30 seconds), not the temperature of the water. “Getting your hands under the water long enough is most important,” says Rubin, “temperature is for your comfort.”

4. Elbow-Sneeze, Please!

A little girl sneezing in to get elbow

Kids with colds should sneeze into the crooks of their arms, where any germs, spittle, or mucous will be unlikely to come into contact with anyone else’s hands, nose, or mouth. Containing sneezes this way, Rubin says, can actually help a child rest better during a cold because they won’t have to get up to wash their hands as they would if they sneeze into their hands or even a hankie or tissue.

5. Don’t Fear the Fever

a toddler suffering from a fever

Rubin cites fever—anything higher than 100 degrees—as the symptom of a cold or flu-like illness that’s most frightening to parents. But he urges parents to treat fevers medically only for their child’s comfort, not as a way of staving off illness itself.  “You get a fever because your body wants to have a fever,” says Rubin. Viruses and bacteria cannot survive in an environment with an above-normal temperature, so in that way fever is the body’s own natural cold remedy!  Lukewarm baths, loose clothing, and warm liquid drinks will help ease your child’s discomfort.

6. Keep Your Cold Out of the Cold

a little boy covered in a blanket

Some parents—and some cold-climate cultures—swear by brisk, even frigid air as a way to help kids clear a cold. Rubin disagrees. “I don’t think fresh air is a gigantic advantage,” he says, adding, “Super-cold air is more damaging to [nose and throat] membranes, making you even more susceptible” to infection. Instead, get cozy and put indoor rest on the agenda.

7. Chalk it Up to Immunity-Building

a mom holding her sick baby

A child can have up to eight viruses each calendar year between ages 1 and 4, Rubin says, so there’s nothing dangerous or unhealthy about catching a few bugs per season.  In fact, because “you never get the exact same virus twice,” Rubin urges parents to see seasonal sniffles as their child building a pattern of immunity that will, in the long run, help strengthen their germ-fighting defenses. “Don’t live in a bubble,” says Rubin, lest you teach your child to fear a sick day instead of viewing it as a normal part of growth and development.

8. Use Nose-Clearing Techniques

a mom clearing her baby's nose

Nasal congestion is the hallmark of a cold, and Rubin advises a number of ways to clear it and support healing. During the early days of a cold, apply Calendula cream or balms like Aquaphor to sore noses that have been repeatedly wiped. Use a cool-mist humidifier in the child’s room to keep nasal passages moist. Suction mucous out of clogged noses with bulb syringes up to four times daily. Or use a saline nose drop—purchase one, or make your own using ½ teaspoon of salt and 1 cup of water—to loosen mucous and let it flow. Just don’t offer oral decongestants and antihistamines, Rubin says, because they tend to make children restless and agitated—and they tend to thicken mucous, not clear it.

9. Be Smart with Food and Drink

child little girl with  cup of hot tea at window

Keeping a child hydrated is important during a cold, and good fluid intake can actually help keep mucous thinner, easing its way out of the body. Milk and other dairy products stimulate mucous production, so they should be minimized in children who are more than 12 months old.  Sugary foods and foods high in fat should also be avoided because a cold can make digestion more difficult.  Clear, warm liquids and light, simple foods, Rubin advises, should be the watchwords.

10. Nurture, Nurture, Nurture

a mom nursing her sick child

The best remedy, says Rubin, is the simplest and most basic one any parent can provide—nurturing, loving care.  In busy households, it can be a challenge to stop the action for a few days of quiet rest and warm liquids—but it is crucial that parents make snuggles, warm blankets, gentle foods, and low-key play a priority. “When you’re nourishing your child with parental attention, that has a therapeutic effect on the well-being of that child,” Rubin says.

 
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