Family Health Guide

You are here

Cold & Flu: Complementary/ Alternative Treatments

A number of household staples have been proven effective not just by Grandma but by science, too. What many doctors are now ordering for cold prevention and treatment:

Vitamin D

 This nutrient is emerging as an important infection fighter, and most children aren't getting enough of it. While many kids produce sufficient amounts from sunlight exposure in the summer, Dr. Kemper says, “it's hard to get enough from the sun in the wintertime, especially in the northern latitudes.” Ask your doctor to check your child's vitamin D levels, and discuss a supplement. The AAP recommends 400 IU per day. An eight-ounce glass of milk has about 100.


 Some research suggests that the bacteria found in foods like yogurt and kefir may help prevent respiratory infections. In one study of kids ages 3 to 5, those who consumed active lactobacillus cultures daily for six months during cold season were less likely to get sick, and the colds they did get were shorter in duration.


Sleep and immune function are so intertwined that studies have found people who don't get enough sleep are more susceptible to colds. And if your child does get sick, let him stay home from preschool, and turn off the Wii for a while. “I want to get a big stamp that says ‘Rest and fluids,’” says Vandana Bhide, M.D., a pediatrician in Saint Augustine, FL, who is certified by the American Board of Holistic Medicine. Making sure your child gets enough rest may be the most important thing you can do for him when he's sick, Dr. Bhide emphasizes.


That means you, Mom! “Parents stress when their child is sick,” notes Dr. Bernstein. “Meanwhile, the kid's on the floor, playing with his toys, happy as can be, with snot coming out of his nose and coughing. They often feel better than we do.” Of course, if your child develops a fever or his symptoms seem to worsen, consult your pediatrician; he may have developed a secondary infection (ear, sinus) that requires an antibiotic. Otherwise, try to remember: A normal cold will run its course over a week or so, no matter what you do. If you treat it, your child will get well. If you don't treat it, he will still get well.

Fluids and Food

Whether it's a cold or the flu, the one thing your child needs a consistent supply of is fluids, particularly water, diluted fruit juice or rehydration drinks, like Pedialyte or Gatorade.. Ice pops and fruit smoothies can soothe a sore throat and help increase fluid intake, as can Jello or pudding.  

Honey can also help relieve coughing. A study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that honey at bedtime was more effective at quieting coughs than honey-tasting cough medicine (flavored so the kids wouldn't know which they were getting). The AAP recommends half a teaspoon for children 2 to 5 years old, a teaspoon for ages 6-11, and two teaspoons 12 and up. (The brand of honey "doesn't make any difference", says Dr. Fisher, but make sure your child has fluids or brushes her teeth afterwards to avoid letting the honey sit on their teeth). Never give honey to babies less than 1 year old.

As for the age-old chicken soup remedy, good news: that is a valid choice for a kid with a cold or the flu. Studies have shown that the canned and homemade varieties have anti-inflammatory properties, plus it promotes liquid intake and can replace lost sodium if your child is vomiting or has diarrhea.

A study last year in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology found that salt, a natural anti-inflammatory, can help release mucus and ease breathing, as well as soothe sore throats and coughs. For congestion, make a saline rinse with a half to a full teaspoon of salt per pint of warm water and administer it with a dropper (inexpensive saline nose rinses are also widely available). To treat a sore throat or cough, try teaching your child to gargle with the same warm saltwater solution.

For a Fever

If your child has a high fever (100.4ºF or higher for 2 month-old-child or younger, 101.1ºF for 3 to 4 months, and 103ºF for 6 months and up), or one that keeps coming back, take her to the pediatrician.

For a mild fever, a lukewarm bath and dressing your child in light layers can help make them feel more comfortable. Don't bundle or swaddle a feverish baby or child. Putting thin layers of blankets on your older child's bed can also allow them to easily add layers if they get chilled, and remove them if they feel overheated. Make sure your child is maintaining a steady intake of fluids as well.

Vomiting and diarrhea can be symptoms of the flu. If your child can't keep anything down, avoid giving just plain water; it won't replace the electrolytes lost with diarrhea, and, says Dr. Fisher, can create an electrolyte imbalance. Stick with rehydration drinks like Pedialyte or Gatorade, which provide the water, sugar and salts lost in diarrhea.

  • For babies, try nursing or giving formula in shorter but more frequent periods. If your baby can't keep breast milk or formula down, offer half an ounce of Pedialyte every 10 to 15 minutes until she stops throwing up; then switch back to nursing or formula. "If you're getting as much [or more] in as is coming out, that's the goal," says Dr. Fisher. But if you notice signs of dehydration, especially less frequent urination than is usual for your baby, or if vomiting is high in volume and frequency (meaning your baby is persistently throwing up everything they last ate), it's time to call your pediatrician. For diarrhea in babies younger than 3 months, call your pediatrician. If diarrhea continues for more than 24 hours in a baby 3 months or older, or if there is blood in the stool,  give your pediatrician a call.
  • For kids 1 and up, offer 1 to 2 tablespoons of Pedialyte or Gatorade every 20 to 30 minutes; increase the amount to 2 tablespoons every 10 minutes if he can keep it down. If your child is throwing up, has diarrhea for more than a few hours, or if there is blood in the stool or blood or bile in the vomit, or cannot keep any liquid down or is vomiting everything they consumed persistently, call your pediatrician.
  • Once your child is keeping down liquids, let her continue to eat whatever she enjoys eating, and push foods that contain extra water, such as Jello or puddings.

Clearing the Mucus

You can loosen a child's stuffed up nose several ways. For a baby, squirt a few drops of saline solution in your baby's nasal passages, then gently suction with a rubber bulb syringe. "The younger they are, the more important this is," says Dr. Fisher. That's because babies are obligate nose breathers, meaning they have not yet learned to open their mouths to breathe when their nose is stuffed. Having your child sit upright, or sitting with your younger child on your lap, in a bathroom with a steaming hot shower running for 10 minutes can help loosen mucus as well.

Running a steam vaporizer in your child's room during naptime and at bedtime may help keep the air moist, encouraging mucus to loosen. If you use a steam vaporizer, be sure to keep it out of your child's reach to prevent burns. 

For a Cough or Sore Throat

If your child has a productive cough, it can actually help loosen and expel mucus. "A cough is your protective reflex," says Dr, Fisher, so don't worry about suppressing it. Still, there are ways to relieve burning, scratchy throats. Cold foods, like ice pops or fruit smoothies, are good for soothing irritated throats. Honey can be used to alleviate a sore throat, too, but never give honey to a child less than 1 year old.

Before You Buy...

If you're tempted to try an herbal or homeopathic remedy, do so with your eyes open. Talk to your child's pediatrician about your plans first and read labels carefully. What to look for:

  1. “ALCOHOL-FREE.” FDA-approved over-the-counter drugs are required to meet limits for alcohol, but natural products are not, and some use ethanol to dissolve ingredients. Last year the World Health Organization warned that “homeopathic medicines may contain high levels of ethanol.” One that doesn't: Chestal, a popular homeopathic honey remedy for coughs made by the French company Boiron. Its products are alcohol-free.

  2. QUALITY VERIFICATION. Voluntary, independent certification of natural products is done by, the United States Pharmacopeia, the Natural Products Association, and NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation). Any of their seals means the product has met certain benchmarks for manufacturing quality and consistency. The American Botanical Council ( is another reliable source.

  3. RESPECTED BRANDS. Some natural-product makers have voluntarily chosen to invest in medical and clinical research to ensure quality, says Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council. These brands include Echinamide and Echinaforce Junior, immunity-boosting echinacea formulas with clinical trials to back them up, and Sinupret for Kids, made by the German company Bionorica, to treat sinus and congestion problems.

By Laura Beil and Kate Goodin