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Cold and Flu Guide: The Next Generation

MDI Digital

Caring for a sniffly, feverish child is a ritual as old as parenting itself, but this is hardly your mom's cold and flu guide. Today's parents can click, swipe, and download their way to better tools when faced with the six to eight respiratory infections young kids get each year. That adds up to about one a month during the cold and flu season we're heading into. As many as 42 percent of children also get the flu annually. Consider that each ailment can last an average of seven days, and we're talking a lot of potential downtime—and missed school and work—ahead. Arm your family with this digital tool kit and some all-natural ancient wisdom to help you track down and wipe out these nasty bugs.Bug-Tracking Tools

It may not sound quite as fun as NORAD's Santa Tracker, but Google Flu Trends ( is one cool tool. These expert data crunchers use patterns of search for flu-related topics to predict the presence of actual flu symptoms with surprising precision. And at the Flu Near You website (, you can zoom in and see where flu symptoms are showing up in your own neighborhood.

BE PREPARED: Follow outbreaks online.

Another awesome new digi tool is Asthmapolis. It consists of a tiny GPS-enabled wireless sensor that attaches to an asthma inhaler. You pair it with your smartphone, and each time your child needs to use the inhaler, the data is stored in the phone app to create a detailed treatment record. But that's not all—the app also uses the data to map where and when wheezing is happening in your own community. Respiratory infections are among the most common wheezing triggers—especially if air quality (which you can see at is unhealthy and pollen counts ( are high. Keep in mind, too, that not all coughs are caused by cold or flu: 2012 has seen the worst outbreak of pertussis in 50 years. The HealthMap website ( is a great free resource for a quick view of the most important outbreaks in your zip code. Bookmark it.Germ Warmfare

When cold or flu viruses are in your neighborhood or daycare, or lurking on your television remote, it's time to ramp up prevention efforts. A few simple steps could head off a week or two of yuck. Evidence is mounting that getting enough vitamin D makes a big difference, perhaps cutting the number of colds in half (three to four colds a year is a whole lot better than six to eight!) and cutting swab-proven flu by as much as two thirds. Kids' vitamin D levels tend to be lowest during cold and flu season. I suggest giving them 1,000 to 1,200 IU a day.

Recent well-designed studies also suggest that taking a probiotic (beneficial bacteria) supplement can dramatically reduce the odds of kids' getting a fever, cough, or runny nose during cold and flu season. And if they do get sick, kids taking the probiotics tend to get better two or three days faster. You can talk to your pediatrician about specific brands, but they are available over-the-counter for purchase on your own, too. Just look for a mixture of at least two types of beneficial bacteria and a total of at least 10 billion CFU.

Try to stay clear of coughs and sneezes, cough into the inside of the elbow, and wash hands frequently, to help reduce family spread. Keep oft-touched germy surfaces clean, too. Thymol is a powerful, natural ingredient to look for in hand sanitizers and disinfectants that will kill germs without creating risk for your family.Digital Diagnosis

Too many times I've heard—and said—“It's a virus.” But the common cold can be caused by more than 100 different viruses. And the flu is a set of somewhat similar, but often more severe, symptoms caused by the influenza A or B virus. Soon it will be possible to know exactly which virus your child has and what to expect when expectorating (OK, what to expect when coughing). I'm the chief medical officer of Scanadu (, where we're creating cool tools parents can use. The first of these, debuting in 2013, is called the Scanadu SCOUT: a palm-size tool to explore and learn about how your child's body works. With a simple touch, it can SCOUT oxygen levels, heart-rate variability, pulse transit time, skin surface temperature (and more). The device is linked to your smartphone, where the info is effortlessly stored and interpreted.

When you do have a medical question and your doc isn't available (read: 3 a.m. or Saturday afternoon), you can submit a question from your phone, tablet, or laptop 24/7 to HealthTap (, where more than 14,000 doctors are providing quick answers for free. For a road map when your child is sick, check out the Vicks cold-symptom forecaster ( For example, day one is likely to bring complaints of a sore throat, whereas day four's symptoms are more likely to be congestion and coughing.Sick-Kid Cures

Serve up some zinc. There's new strong evidence that zinc really can help reduce the severity and duration of colds—if started in the first 24 hours of symptoms. Plus: Kids taking zinc supplements for at least five months get fewer colds overall and miss fewer days of school. (Give your child zinc in syrup form—the lozenges taste worse and may cause nausea.)

Turn on the water works. Topical saline is your first go-to liquid. With babies, administer saline nose drops with a bulb syringe. For older kids, use a saline spray or (in our family) Neti pot—a teapot-like container. The benefit? Evidence of decreased daycare or school absence, modest improvement of symptoms, decreased return of symptoms, and decreased need for other meds. Warm, humidified air has also been shown to have some benefit—just be sure to keep the device out of reach.

Honey trumps cough medicine. To some extent coughing is helpful, protecting the lungs and ejecting some of the virus from the body. But enough is enough, especially when it's keeping the whole family up at night. A spoonful of honey is one of the most effective cough remedies for kids over age 1. I suggest 1/2 tsp for kids ages 1 to 6, and 1 tsp for kids ages 6 to 12. The darker the honey, the better.

Warm things up. Fevers help kids fight colds by activating the immune system. Not all kids with colds get a fever, however, so you might consider wrapping yours up in some warm blankets or holding him close to increase his body temperature just a bit. Raising the room temperature, or positioning your child near a cozy fire (with proper safety precautions, of course), may also help.

Be a couch potato. There's a reason you feel wiped out with a cold: Your body needs rest. So let your child chill on the couch and indulge in some extra screen time. If he's having trouble sleeping at night, that's your cue to treat even helpful symptoms, such as fevers and coughs.Repeat after me, Dr. Alan Greene, … I will not give my child:

•CONVENTIONAL COLD MEDICINES, such as OTC decongestants, antihistamines, and cough suppressants. There are potential serious side effects and little evidence of benefit.

•ANTIBIOTICS. Still given too frequently when kids visit doctors, antibiotics do not work on viruses (which colds and flu are), only bacterial infections like strep throat and pneumonia.

More Tips:

Stay at least three feet out of the blast zone of coughs and sneezes.

•It's 3 AM and your child needs a doctor: find one online at HEALTHTAP.COM

•Sore throat? Try JUST FOR KIDS organic teas.Homemade Feel-Better Brew

Recent science backs the theory that warm liquids can indeed provide immediate and sustained relief. When someone in my house is getting sick, we put on a pot of our go-to homemade brew:

  • 2 cups of water combined with the juice of 1 lemon

  • zest from half that lemon

  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

  • 2 cloves chopped garlic

  • an inch of chopped fresh ginger

  • honey to taste (for kids over 1)

Bring to a boil, pour through a strainer, and serve with love and attention!