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What works for treating children’s colds?

Toddler boy blowing his nose

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Children get six to eight colds a year – twice as many as adults – but there’s little evidence on what helps improve symptoms like blocked or runny noses and sneezing.

So are there remedies worth trying?

Pharmacies and supermarkets are full of cough and cold medicines which claim to relieve symptoms of the common cold.

But there is little evidence that many of them work, according to a BMJ review of trials on over-the-counter treatments.

And some, like decongestants, are not suitable for babies, children or pregnant women.

The common cold can cause a sore throat, cough, congestion, a raised temperature and sneezing – all irritating symptoms – but after a week or so they should go away on their own.

The truth is there is no magic cure.

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Does anything help clear the nose?

Dr Rahul Chodhari, consultant paediatrician and spokesman for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says parents should try using saline nasal washes, also called nasal irrigation.

They can be bought over the counter in the form of drops or sprays.

The saltwater solution helps to clear the mucus from the nose and reduces the feeling of congestion.

“There are no side effects, it can be used many times a day and it’s well proven to reduce swelling around the nose,” Dr Chodhari says.

Apart from that, Calpol is useful for treating a fever – but it doesn’t help relieve a blocked nose.

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What is not recommended?

Decongestants are they are not suitable for children under 12, according to the NHS, because of the risk of side effects, like drowsiness and stomach upsets.

Adults can use them for a maximum of three to seven days, but the BMJ research says they have “a small effect on nasal symptoms”.

They can help ease blocked or stuffy noses by reducing the swelling or the blood vessels in the nose, which helps open up the airways.

However, they also increase the risk of headaches and insomnia, among other side effects, and using them for too long can lead to chronic nasal congestion.

Dr Chodhari says cough syrups are not recommended because they stop children coughing up mucus and getting rid of it.

And antibiotics only work against bacterial infections and so they do nothing to combat colds.

Vapour rubs and steam inhalation are not advised either, he says.

What about home remedies?

Research on whether these kind of remedies work is really lacking.

The following ones have not been studied in children, or aren’t effective, the BMJ research says:

  • heated humidified air
  • humidified steam
  • echinacea
  • probiotics
  • eucalyptus oil

According to NHS UK, there is little evidence that supplements such as vitamin C, zinc or garlic prevent colds or speed up recovery.

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When do I go to my GP?

Make an appointment to see your GP:

  • if your child has a temperature of more than 38.5 degrees
  • develops a rash which does not go away when a glass is pressed against it
  • the symptoms do not improve after a number of days

Any other advice?

Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and keep warm to help see off a cold.

The common cold is usually caused by viruses which are spread easily between people, especially small ones – particularly from coughs and sneezes.

So you can avoid catching a cold by washing your hands regularly in warm water and soap and not touching your eyes or nose in case you have come into contact with the virus.

Use tissues to trap germs and bin them as quickly as possible.

We’d like to hear about your favourite remedies – join the debate on Facebook.

What works for treating children’s colds?

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