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Health Stories

Winter Colds and Flues: How Best to Care for Your Child

By Dr. Mona Jabbour, CHEO Head of Emergency Medicine

An ounce of prevention is certainly the best medicine that CHEO can recommend against fighting inevitable winter colds, flues and other infections. Getting a flu shot, frequent hand washing with soap and warm water, and practicing “sleeve coughing” (coughing into your sleeve instead of your hand) can go a long way in preventing and spreading infections.

But chances are that if your child is in school, or attending daycare, and is interacting with other children who are sick, they will undoubtedly come down with a seasonal infection.

Recent recalls of infant cold medications have many parents wondering how best to care for their children. In fact, the American College of Chest Physicians has strongly recommended that children under 14 years not be given over-the-counter cold and cough medicines, since research studies have not shown that they are effective in children, and as with all medicines, there is a risk of side effects.

Here are a few tips to help you weather those sick days and advice as to when you should consider seeking medical attention.

How can I help my child?

Your first line of defense lies in providing comfort and support to your child while he is sick. Keeping your children at home and providing extra attention goes a long way in making them more comfortable. Other comfort measures include use of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (i.e. Advil®, Motrin®) for pain control or to reduce fever. Using saline drops, a suction bulb, or a cool mist humidifier can help with congestion. Fluids should be increased as your child is likely to be eating less and extra fluids will help towards recovery. If your child is losing fluids, either because of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, rapid breathing or sweating, then a hydrating solution (i.e. Pedialyte®) should be given to replace lost fluids and essential nutrients.

When should I be concerned about my child’s condition?

Your child’s behaviour while he is sick can really help guide whether you should consider getting your child assessed by a health professional. It is common for sick children to be cranky, less active and more “out of sorts” than usual. However, if your child’s behaviour is really out of character and he/she is very lethargic or inconsolable despite your best efforts and usual comfort measures, it would be appropriate to see your physician, visit a clinic or head to your hospital’s emergency department for a medical assessment.

Many children experience a fever while being sick, which is the body’s normal response to fight off infection. Having a fever is not dangerous and does not cause brain damage. Many children become more lethargic or irritable with fever. However, providing acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce the fever can be very helpful. If your child’s behaviour is more like his/her normal self when the fever is reduced, this is often a reassuring sign. On the other hand, if your child remains lethargic or irritable even after the fever goes away, or if the fever does not come down and your child’s behaviour does not improve, you should have your child assessed.

In addition to gauging your child’s behaviour, here are other questions you might ask yourself:

  • Is my child having difficulty breathing in the chest? Is my child breathing faster than normal, does he look paler than usual or have whitish or bluish lips, or coughing excessively, choking or breathing irregularly?
  • Does my child have significant pain, such as a headache, stomach ache, in addition to other symptoms?
  • Does my child have a rash, in addition to other symptoms?

If your child has had a fever for more than 3 or 4 days, and is experiencing any other symptoms like having difficulty breathing, has significant pain, or a rash, and is not acting as he normally would, then you should seek medical attention.

Where else can I get information?

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