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Cold-and-Flu Old Wives' Tales

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When it comes to colds, flu, stomach bugs, and ear infections, everyone has a theory. Some have been passed down through generations, or are based on outdated science. A few just seem like common sense. But whatever their origin, many just aren't true. The facts behind these myths:

"Feed a cold, starve a fever."
The truth: This centuries-old saying, popularized by Mark Twain, simply isn't so. All sick kids (and adults)  -- whether they've got a cold, fever, or both  -- need nutrients and liquids to get better, says Leigh Ann Greavu, a dietitian in St. Paul. If your child doesn't feel like eating solids, then chicken noodle soup, juice, and even ice cream are good alternatives.

"Greenish mucus means your child has something worse than a cold."
The truth: Not usually. While clear mucus is most common, green or yellow snot can also just be symptoms of a cold. However, discolored mucus plus a persistent high fever, decreased appetite, cough, or severe nasal congestion may be signs of a bacterial infection, which  -- unlike a cold  -- could require antibiotics.
If you notice your child often has green or yellow mucus, there may be an underlying problem (enlarged adenoids, for instance) that's causing recurring bacterial infections. In that case, let your pediatrician be your sleuth.

"Colds and flu are most contagious before symptoms appear."
The truth: They spread most easily when symptoms are at their worst. That's because these infections are commonly passed through coughed-up or sneezed-out droplets containing the virus, or via hand-to-hand contact. While the likelihood of catching (or passing) something peaks when kids are most miserable, the risk persists as long as the drip does. So even if your kid's almost over it, give the other moms in your playgroup a heads up; they may decide to take a rain check.

"It's best not to treat mild fevers."
The truth: It depends on how your child's feeling. Fevers do help fight infections by stimulating the immune system and killing bacteria and viruses that can't survive at higher-than-normal temperatures. But that's no reason to let your child be miserable. Try to strike a balance between keeping him comfortable and letting his body do its job, says Daniel Levy, M.D., clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. If he has a mild fever but seems especially cranky, lethargic, or in pain, giving him the right dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen will likely make him feel (and sleep) better.
If he's reasonably happy and energetic even though his temperature is 102 degrees, keeping an eye on him may be enough (just make sure he's well hydrated). The exception: Any fever in an infant under 6 months merits a call to the doc at once.

"The B.R.A.T. diet is best for diarrhea."
The truth: A regimen of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast used to be the standard prescription for thickening watery stools. While they work great, a plate full of rice, with banana for dessert, isn't always appealing to a sick kid. "Your child will feel better faster if you feed him what he'll actually eat," says Andrea McCoy, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Temple University in Philadelphia. (Just avoid spicy and greasy foods and fruit juice.)

"Don't kiss your baby if you have a cold."
The truth: A peck on the lips probably won't hurt, says Neil Schachter, M.D., author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds & Flu. Unlike a sneeze or a cough, which bring forth viral-rich fluids from your airways, the saliva hanging out in your mouth harbors very little cold virus  -- so it's surprisingly hard to pass the illness through kissing. The best way to keep your baby from catching your cold: Wash your hands often.

"Colds cause ear infections."
The truth: It does seem that way, but all colds are caused by viruses, while 90 percent of ear infections are caused by bacteria. So, why does your child seem to get an ear infection every time he has a cold? "Colds create mucus and fluid buildup in the ear tubes  -- a perfect environment for ear infection-causing bacteria to grow," says Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Toddler 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Toddler.

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