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Common Cold Myths

As soon as your baby starts to sniffle, the theories on the how-to's and what-not's of managing her symptoms may flow as copiously as her nose. And given that most infants catch at least six colds a year, there will be plenty of opportunity for misinformation. I've rounded up a few of the myths I hear year after year in my practice and tried to clear up the confusion so you can keep your baby comfortable (if not cold-free) all season long.

You always hear: Green or yellow mucus means it's a bacterial infection.

The reality: Nasal discharge (otherwise known as snot) is not a reliable way to diagnose the type of infection. Both viruses and bacteria trigger the same immune response: White blood cells shoot to the respiratory tract to fight off the germy invaders. The extra mucus is simply the debris left over from battle. That said, it can provide two valuable clues to the severity of the illness: If nasal discharge gets thicker and your baby becomes sicker, or if discharge begins seeping from her eyes as well, it's time to see the doctor. Babies with the eye-nose combo usually have both a sinus and an ear infection and likely need antibiotics to treat them.

You always hear: Cool-mist humidifiers are better than steam vaporizers.

The reality: Both can ease your baby's symptoms. The one you choose really depends on which you prefer. The newer ultrasonic cold-mist humidifiers produce a very fine mist that can penetrate deeper into clogged breathing passages for a more effective "steam clean." They're also more hygienic than the old drum-style humidifiers, which can become a reservoir for germs when they're not disinfected regularly (and they rarely are; who has the time?).

My preference for winter is a hot-mist vaporizer, which gives you a double-whammy cold remedy. First, vaporizers produce a sterile steam, which means you don't have to worry about possibly spewing more germs into your already-sick baby's room. And because they also provide another heat source, at night you can turn down the central heating, which can dry the air, thickening mucus further. Of course, steam vaporizers can cause burns if they're accidentally tipped over, so always be sure to keep yours well out of the baby's reach.

William Sears, M.D., is a contributing editor.

More sick-baby myths

You always hear: If your baby gets chilled, she can catch a cold.

The reality: Kids get sick because they've been exposed to a virus. The phrase "to catch a cold" is medically correct, yet it may be more accurate to say that the cold catches the child. Cold germs reside in the tiny particles released into the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Your child may breathe in these germ-carrying droplets, or she may literally place them in her nose, eyes, or mouth with her hands if she happens to touch a virus-laden toy or surface. Once the bugs set up shop in the respiratory tract, they begin the incubation period  -- the time between exposure to the germ and the onset of symptoms. Most cold germs lay low for a few days before making their presence known. So if your baby visited a friend with a cold yesterday and comes down with symptoms today, don't blame that friend! She probably picked up those buggers sometime last week.

You always hear: You should feed a cold, starve a fever.

The reality: Feed  -- and hydrate  -- both! A cold and fever may have dampened your little one's appetite, and her stuffy nose may make it harder for her to suck, but it's crucial that you keep the food  -- and especially the drink  -- coming. Not only does dehydration make your baby feel worse, but it also further inflames the nasal passages and thickens mucus. Here's what you can do to make sure your little one gets what she needs:

If she's younger than 6 months, offer the breast or bottle more frequently than usual, and gently suction her nose before each feed to ease her breathing. Apply a few drops of saline to each nostril and gently aspirate (I like the Nose-Frida

If an older baby who's already on solids barely eats for a few days, don't worry. It's perfectly fine for him to drink his meals  -- in fact, you can try our sucking-and-sipping solution: Make fruit-juice ice cubes, pop them in a mesh teether, and let your child suck on them all day long. You can also whip up a fruit, yogurt, and milk smoothie (puree until it's thin enough to drink from a sippy). And try to encourage him to drink water, too. I think plain H20 is the best and most readily available cough syrup around.

You always hear: Your child should never receive a vaccination if she has a cold; she could become sicker.

The reality: It depends on how she's feeling. Infants get the sniffles so frequently that if you skipped scheduled immunizations every time they had a cold, almost no baby would get her shots on time. As a general guide, if an infant has no fever or difficulty breathing and is behaving normally, we go ahead and give the vaccinations. Still, if you're concerned, you can always ask your doctor about holding off a few days or spacing out multiple shots.

You always hear: You should bundle a feverish child.

The reality: It's better to keep her unwrapped. I often see feverish infants wrapped up like baby burritos. Not surprisingly, as soon as I unbundle the child, the temperature will often drop a bit. Your best bet is to dress your infant in loose, lightweight clothing. After you give your child a bath, gently pat him dry, but leave a bit of dampness on his skin  -- it will produce even more of a cooling effect as it evaporates.

You always hear: Milk increases mucus production.

The reality: Milk increases mucus only in children who are already allergic. Babies with milk allergies often develop a runny nose, watery eyes, and rattly breathing, all symptoms that can become exacerbated when they catch a cold. However, if your little one has no history of a dairy sensitivity and she's older than 1, let her drink up!