House Calls runs every other Saturday. Today’s column is written by Quenlyn Larson, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Sutter Coast Community Clinic.
Even though it is now March we are still seeing children in the office with colds and the flu. Here are a few tips on how to recognize and treat a cold or the flu.
What is a cold?
A cold or an upper respiratory infection (URI) is a viral infection of the nose and throat. A cold consists of a running or stuffy nose usually associated with fever and sore throat, and sometimes a cough, hoarseness, red eyes, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. Children get on average an estimated six colds every year. Cold viruses are spread from one person to another by hand contact, by sneezing and coughing, not by cold air or drafts.
A cold can last anywhere from seven to 10 days. Fever usually lasts no more than three days and the nose and throat symptoms are usually gone by one week. Coughs are usually gone by two to three weeks. Nasal secretions can range from clear, to yellow, to green. Secondary infections that may occur with a cold are ear infections, pink eye (yellow or green drainage from the eyes), sinus infections, and difficulty breathing (pneumonia).
A cold is caused by direct contact with someone who has a cold. Since young babies are more susceptible to colds and complications, try to avoid exposing them to children or adults who are sick. One of the easiest ways you can prevent getting a cold is to wash your hands frequently during the day with soap and water or hand sanitizer, especially before and after eating, after using the bathroom, after caring for a pet, and anytime your hands are dirty.
After you catch a cold you can help prevent its spread by covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze preferably into your sleeve or in your hand, but be sure to wash your hands right away. Never reuse tissues or put used tissues in your pocket, just throw them away.
How is a cold different from influenza?
Influenza or the flu is also caused by a virus, the RNA virus. However, the symptoms of the flu, chills, body aches, head ache, general discomfort, high fevers, sore throat, and cough are more severe than the common cold. The flu is spread when people cough or sneeze and the droplets that result land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or even inhaled into the lungs.
Often the person knows exactly when he or she became sick with the flu. The flu can last several days up to two weeks. Treatment for the flu is similar to that for a cold or any other viral infection; however, in some circumstances your health care provider may have you take an anti-viral medication that may help shorten the course of the flu.
Complications from the flu can be more serious for the very young child and that is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the flu vaccine for all children age 6 months and up every year. Protection from the flu from the vaccine lasts only one to two years, which is why it is recommended that you get a flu vaccine every year. Contact your health care provider for more information.
What can I do for a cold or flu at home?
One of the common mistakes in treating a cold or the flu is to use over-the-counter cold, cough, and flu medicines. The AAP does not recommend them for children because nothing has been proven to shorten the duration of a cold and they can even make the cold worse.
The best treatment for a runny nose is to suction the nose to remove or clear any secretions that are present. The best way to do this for younger children is to gently use a soft rubber suction bulb to remove the secretions. Nasal discharge is the body’s way of eliminating viruses, and medications are not helpful unless your child has a nasal allergy.
The best treatment for a stuffy nose or a nose blocked with dried yellow or green mucous is to use nose drops made of warm tap water or saline nose drops from the pharmacy to loosen the mucous before trying to remove the mucous with the soft rubber suction bulb.
You can make saline drops at home by mixing ½ level teaspoon of table salt to 8 oz of warm tap water. Be sure to mix up a new solution every day and store it in a clean bottle and use a clean dropper to insert the drops. For the younger child, apply three drops in each nostril and after one minute try to suction the mucous with the rubber suction bulb. Have the older child lie down, apply three drops to each nostril and wait one minute and have your child blow his/her nose. It is important to use nasal drops at least four times a day.
Tylenol or ibuprophen may be given for body aches and fevers over 102 degrees, warm herbal or decaffeinated tea with honey for coughs in children over two years of age, vaporizers in the room to prevent dry mucous membranes, and lots of fluids to prevent dehydration.
When should I go to my health care provider?
You should consult your provider immediately if your child’s breathing becomes difficult or no better after you clear his/her nose or if your child starts acting very sick. If your child isn’t eating or putting out urine (wet diapers) or if the fever lasts more than three days or is above 100.4 R in infants, or if the nasal discharge lasts more than 10 days, eyes develop a yellow or green discharge, or any indication of an ear infection or sinus infection, call the provider immediately. Stay home if you or your child is sick to avoid spreading the cold or flu. Call your health care provider if you have any questions or concerns.