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Ask Dr. Sears: Does Winter Bring Colds?

Q. Can a baby get a cold from being in cold weather or in a cold draft? Also, is seven months too young for the flu shot?

Despite the name, colds do not come from getting chilled or being out in a draft. Colds spread through germs that are transmitted from child to child through something called "droplet spread." It's like a barrage of microscopic water balloons tossed into the air when a child coughs or sneezes. When other people nearby inhale these germs, they can become infected. Or when one child rubs his snotty nose with his hands and then comes in contact with another child, the germs find a new home to set-up a cold. So, not only can children catch a cold, they can literally pick one up. That's why it is important to insist that children with colds cover their nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing, and that they wash their hands.

It's true that children get more colds in the wintertime, but it's not necessarily because of the cold weather itself. The main reason is that children play indoors more often, so there are usually more children crowded into a smaller space. Also, they don't have the advantage of fresh, circulating air and the wide-open space of playing outdoors when the weather is suitable.

At your child's age, it's important to take precautions against colds. Between six and nine months of age, the natural immunity you gave your baby through your blood at birth has nearly worn off, and the baby's immune system is still immature. During this vulnerable period from six to nine months is when babies need lots of natural immunity-boosting and protection from germs, until their own immune system can mature.

In addition to careful hand-washing and teaching him to cover his nose and mouth, here are some other measures to take to lower the risk and severity of colds:

Lessen exposure. Try to limit daycare exposure as much as is practical. If daycare is necessary in your family, take a look at your provider's facilities: The fewest children in the largest space cuts down on the transmission of colds.

Breastfeed as long as possible. If you are still nursing your baby, I advise you to continue as long as you and your baby are willing and able. Because of the high concentration of natural infection fighters in mother's milk, breastfed babies get fewer colds.

Offer fruits and vegetables. Phytonutrients -- "phytos" for short -- are natural immune-boosting substances in fruits and vegetables, and generally, the darker the color of fruits and vegetables, the more phytos. Blueberries, tomatoes, pink (instead of white) grapefruit, sweet (instead of white) potatoes, and watermelons all contain healthy phytos. Dark greens, such as spinach, have more phytos in them than iceberg, or what I call "see-through," lettuce.

Give a multi-vitamin. If your baby is entering the picky-eater stage, a daily multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement increases the vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc in your baby's diet. Like the phytos in fruits, these nutrients boost your baby's immunity.

A "nose hose" and a "steam clean." These are two of Dr. Bill's favorite home remedies. The nose is the door for entry of germs into the body. So, at the first sign of a cold spritz saline nasal spray into your baby's nose and suck out the secretions with a nasal aspirator. Take your baby into a bathroom or shower and let the steam liquefy the secretions to make them easier to cough and sneeze out.

As for flu shots, yes, your baby can get one at seven months of age. Up until this year, the flu shot was recommended for infants and children over six months of age only when they stood an increased risk of getting respiratory infections that might be worsened by the flu. This included children with asthma, congenital heart disease, chronic lung problems, or chronic illnesses. As of 2003, the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics broadened their recommendation. They now encourage flu shots for all children over six months of age. Some pediatricians still limit flu shots to high-risk children only, so it would be wise to check first with your child's healthcare provider. I would recommend your infant get the flu shot if he is in part-time or full-time daycare or has any of the above risk factors.

I hope the above remedies will help your infant have a cold-free and flu-free winter season!