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The Truth About Colds & Flu

Your child will probably catch six to eight colds this year — maybe more if brothers and sisters are around to share their germs too.

If you're feeling confused about how to treat colds and the flu — or aren't sure how to help your child avoid these nasty bugs — you're not alone.

Read on for some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about colds and the flu. Learn how to separate the facts from fiction, keep your family healthier, and save yourself time, money and frustration.

Myth 1: Over-the-counter cold and flu remedies work well for children.

When it comes to treating your child's cold or flu, don't expect to get a lot of help from the drugstore. The oldest remedies — plenty of rest and fluids — are still the best.

If you decide to give your child cold and flu medications, do it carefully. Because these products can cause side effects such as drowsiness, upset stomach, sleeplessness and more, be sure to:

  • Follow dosing instructions
  • Stop offering medicines that don't seem to work
  • Never give aspirin to a child who has a cold or flu. The combination of aspirin and a viral illness can trigger Reye's syndrome, a rare but dangerous disease.

Note: Most pediatricians recommend against over-the-counter cold medicines for babies under six months old. Always check with your doctor before giving your baby or young toddler any medication.

Myth 2: Antibiotics can kill the germs that cause colds and the flu.

This is one myth that just won't go away. American doctors write millions of antibiotic prescriptions for colds and flu every year, often under pressure from worried parents. But no antibiotic will help a cold or flu because they only do one thing: kill bacteria. And colds and flu are caused by viruses, a class of germs that aren't anything like bacteria. Unless your child has a complication of a cold or flu that might involve bacteria, antibiotics are not a good solution for treatment.

Not only are antibiotics useless against cold or flu, they can actually be harmful. Kids taking antibiotics can suffer from diarrhea, stomach cramps and other side effects. And when antibiotics are overused, disease-causing bacteria can gradually build up a resistance to the drugs, making future bacterial infections harder to treat.

Myth 3: There’s really no difference between the flu and a bad cold.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, but it's helpful to be able to distinguish one from the other. For one thing, colds almost always go away without causing trouble, but the flu can lead to complications such as pneumonia.

Quickly spotting a case of flu also opens up new possibilities for treatment. If your child is 1 year old or older, he can receive antiviral drugs, which kill the virus that causes the flu and can speed recovery. However, these drugs only work if taken in the first two days of the illness and are mostly used for kids with chronic illnesses, such as asthma. The majority of children with the flu recover just fine without these medicines.

How can I tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

  • Colds usually come on slowly. The first sign is often a sore, scratchy throat, followed by a runny nose and sneezing. 
  • Colds don't usually cause significant fevers in adults, but infants and young children often reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Other common cold symptoms include cough, headache and stuffiness.
  • Flu symptoms come on quickly and tend to be severe. 
  • Flu will cause your child to feel weak, tired and achy with a fever that may soar to 103 or even 105 degrees. 
  • Other flu symptoms include a dry cough, runny nose, chills, sore throat, strong headache and eye pain.

Note: If you're having trouble identifying your child's illness, or are concerned about symptoms, call your child's doctor. Sometimes it takes a lab test to tell a cold from the flu.

Myth 4: It’s a good idea to take your child to the doctor when he has a cold.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recently listed symptoms that separate serious illnesses from the run-of-the mill variety. Whether you think your child has a cold or flu, you should call your doctor if you notice any of the following warning signs:

  • A cold that lasts for more than 10 days
  • A lingering fewer
  • Any fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Bluish skin
  • Breathing difficulty, including wheezing or rapid breaths
  • Earache or discharge from the ear 
  • Extreme irritability
  • Flu-like symptoms that come back after seeming to subside, especially when they include a fever and a worsening cough
  • Inability to wake up
  • Not drinking enough liquids
  • Seizures
  • Worsening of other conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes

Myth 5: There’s no reason for kids to get flu shots.

If your child is six months or older, many doctors recommend a yearly flu vaccination. It's best to get vaccinated in October or early November, so your child has time to develop immunity before flu season gets into full swing.

Note: Although the flu vaccine hasn't been approved for babies younger than six months old, you can still protect your infant by making sure that her caregivers and siblings get vaccinated.

Myth 6: Dietary supplements such as vitamin C, zinc and Echinacea can ease children’s cold symptoms.

Zinc, vitamin C and Echinacea have all been heralded as natural immune-system boosters. Unfortunately, there's no good evidence that any of these products can actually ease the symptoms of a cold in adults or kids. Always talk to your child's doctor before giving your child any supplements or medicines.

Myth 7: Kids in daycare will catch more colds than other children.

There's actually some truth behind the stereotype of the runny-nosed daycare kid. These children can be more prone to colds when they're younger, because they're exposed to more germs. However, daycare kids may be less likely to sniffle through grade school. A 2002 study published in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine found that kids who attended large daycares as preschoolers suffered fewer colds in later years, presumably because they had built up immunity to most common cold viruses.

Myth 8: Breathing the same air as a sick person is the easiest way to catch a cold.

Cold viruses can travel through the air — especially when a sick person coughs or sneezes — but it's not a very efficient way for them to find their next victim. They'd much rather hitch a ride on a person's hand. One of the best ways to catch a cold is to grab something that's coated with the virus, perhaps a phone, toy or friend's hand.

Myth 9: You’re more likely to catch a cold if you’re cold or wet.

Despite your mom's warnings about bundling up and not going out with wet hair, it's not true that being cold can cause a cold. If a cold virus happens to land in your nose, it doesn't really matter whether you're wrapped in an electric blanket or standing in a bucket of ice water: You're probably going to get sick.

Myth 10: Hugging and kissing are great ways to spread cold and flu germs.

Don’t be afraid to give your sick child plenty of affection and don’t worry that a kiss or hug will spread your germs (or vice-versa). Cold and flu viruses like to enter the body through the nose or eyes, so a hug or a peck on the cheek isn’t likely to be dangerous. Besides, sniffling kids need love too.

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