Alternatives to Cold Medicines

When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their recommendation against cold medicines for children under the age of 6, parents started searching for alternatives. The good news is that families have a number of alternatives to traditional over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines and cough suppressants.

It’s worth remembering that what we think of as cold symptoms are mostly tools the body uses to get rid of the virus. A low-grade fever is inhospitable to many viruses and activates our immune system. Congestion is the dilation of blood vessels, bringing needed supplies to the scene of the battle. Mucus traps virus particles and starts moving them away. Coughing and sneezing forcefully eject the virus from the body. Fatigue helps you get the rest you need to heal. The goal of any treatment is to gently do what it takes to make a child comfortable while the body does its healing work.

There are a few treatments that may actually shorten the duration or reduce the severity of a cold. One recent analysis of 30 studies of vitamin C found a consistent benefit of shortening colds by an average of 13.6 percent in children for kids who regularly take the supplement (more effective in kids than in adults). There are at least eight good studies looking at taking zinc. Four of these showed found benefit in reducing duration and/or severity; four did not. I suggest it for kids who may not be getting enough zinc in the diet – which is a lot of kids.

Echinacea appears to be effective in treating colds in nine placebo-controlled studies in adults (plus one study showing perhaps some benefit, and six showing none). But benefit has not been demonstrated in children. Moreover, children in the studies sometimes got rashes from the Echinacea.

For a cough, one option is a spoonful of dark honey for children older than 1 year. Unlike DM cough suppressant, recent research suggests it works better than placebo.

I’m also a fan of cough drops for kids who are old enough where choking is not an issue. They stimulate more saliva production, which could reduce cough and sore throat and bring more antibodies to the scene.

Heated humidified air (steam from a shower, vaporizer, or humidifier) could be a good option. Of six controlled studies, three showed benefit and none showed worse symptoms. The key is to make sure, though, that the source of the heat is not something the child could get into and get burned.

Spraying saline (saltwater) into the nose has been shown to relieve pain and congestion in a number of studies. You can find saline sprays and washes in the drugstore. Some kids enjoy Neti Pots, a way to pour the saltwater in one nostril and out the other.

Published on: October 27, 2008
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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