Family Health Guide

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Cold & Flu: Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold or seasonal flu. You can prevent each by keeping your kids and your home's germ hotspots clean and by boosting your child's immune system, and for the flu, getting your child vaccinated yearly. But that probably won't stop your kid from catching a few colds and having a bout or two with the flu. So how can you treat their sniffles, coughs and fevers?

Over-The-Counter Medication for Symptoms:

There are medications kids can take to alleviate symptoms, like decongestants, but they are not safe or proven to be effective for children under 6. Plus, the medication won't cure your kid because it doesn't combat the actual virus causing the cold or flu: you'll have to wait for that to pass. Single-ingredient acetaminophen or ibuprofen is approved in children older than 6 months as a fever reducer, but it should not be given to a child who is vomiting or dehydrated. Acetaminophen is approved in children younger than 6 months, but consult your MD.  For kids 6 and up, ask your doctor to recommend an over-the-counter cough or cold medicine, and give doses according to directions. A mentholated vapor rub, such as Vicks, can help soothe coughing in kids over 2, but it can irritate airways and increase mucus in kids under two.  Do not give your children aspirin as it has been linked with Reye's syndrome, so use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers.

There are also several non-medicinal ways to relieve your child's cold and flu symptoms.

Antivirals for the Seasonal Flu:

For seasonal influenza, the CDC lists two types of antivirals that can be effective against seasonal influenza for children. Remember, even if your child is vaccinated against the flu, the flu vaccine is not 100% effective against all strains of the flu. Antivirals are most effective when given within 2 days of being sick.

  • Oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu®), an oral medication, is approved to both treat and prevent influenza A and B virus infection in people one year of age and older.
    • If the liquid form is not available and the child cannot swallow a pill, the CDC states that "children’s doses of Tamiflu® capsules may be opened and mixed with sweetened liquids such as regular or sugar-free chocolate syrup."
    • Side effects include nausea and vomiting, which can be mitigated if the medication is taken with food.
  • Zanamivir (brand name Relenza®), an inhaled medication, is approved to treat influenza A and B virus infection in people 7 years and older and to prevent influenza A and B virus infection in people 5 years and older.
    • Side effects include diarrhea, nausea, sinusitis, nasal signs and symptoms, bronchitis, cough, headache, dizziness, and ear, nose, and throat infections.
    • The CDC also notes that "zanamivir should not be used in people with underlying respiratory disease, including asthma."

Antivirals are recommended for children younger than 2 years old (that age group has a high risk of hospitalizations from the flu), or children who have moderate to severe influenza. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also advises that people taking either oseltamivir or zanamivir be monitored closely for signs of abnormal behavior.