If the word "winter" seems synonymous with the word "stuffy nose," odds are good that you're a parent (or perhaps a teacher). Indeed, the average child has eight to 10 colds annually, many of them during the chilly winter months, says Dr. Robert A.L. Blake, pediatric hospitalist/neonatologist at St. Joseph Medical Center.
Last fall, the Food and Drug Administration safety experts recommended a ban on over-the-counter, multisymptom cold medicines for children ages 6 years or younger.
Today, the FDA plans to announce the government's first official ruling on the issue: Don't give the drugs to children younger than 2. And it comes now because the FDA is worried that parents haven't gotten that message despite all the publicity last fall.
What are the symptoms of a cold?
A child with a common cold might have low-grade fever, a cough, stuffy nose - usually a runny nose - and is generally feeling miserable.
How do you tell the difference between a cold and the flu - or other illness?
Fever is the big indicator. It comes with muscle aches, chills, real loss of appetite, refusal to take fluids. These are clues that there might be something else going on. Or if the illness persists for more than a few days, it may be something other than a cold. If these things happen, then go to a doctor or call the doctor.
How do you treat a cold?
A common cold is a virus and cannot be cured, therefore you are treating the symptoms not the cold.
Keep the child hydrated, force fluids. If your child aged 2 months or older has a low-grade fever, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to keep the fever down. [Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are medicines found in Children's Tylenol and Children's Motrin. They were excluded from the safety experts' recommendations because they are considered safe and effective in treating fevers and aches in children and infants older than 2 months.]
There are basic things you can do to make a child or infant more comfortable: Put a vaporizer in the bedroom to help keep the air moist. At night, the symptoms may get worse. Elevate the child's head a little bit more than usual, this will help him breathe. There also are nasal saline drops that can help with congestion - especially for younger kids.
What about the over-the-counter medications that the safety experts were urging the FDA to consider banning for children under 6 years of age?
They're still available, but parents should try as much as possible those measures [mentioned above] of treatment. Use nonmedicinal routes of treatment if at all possible. If the fever persists, call a doctor. Try to avoid using over-the-counter medications, and if you do use them, read the labels. Make sure they do not duplicate each other in their ingredients. If your child is under age 6 years, consult a doctor.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell when to send a child with a cold to school - or keep him at home. Can you give parents some advice about how to make this decision?
Ah, that is the hard thing. If the kid is obviously ill - has a persistent fever or is not able to function well - keep him at home. From the point of view that treatment includes making sure the child gets good rest, the "good rest" part may preclude him from being sent to school.
What about chicken soup?
Chicken soup is good: The warmth, the fluids, the replenishment of electrolytes all are good things.
Is there any way to prevent colds?
Hand-washing is the big thing: Keep your cold to yourself! If you can, avoid people with colds. And, of course, parents who smoke have a big impact on their children and the colds they get: Secondhand smoke can predispose you to colds and other respiratory infections such as asthma, bronchitis.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
To learn more about kids' colds, go to baltimoresun.com/expertadvice