Ask the Doctors: What's the best way to treat a toddler's cold?

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Q: Our youngest daughter caught a cold over the holidays and was pretty miserable. She had just turned 2, so we didn't want to give her cough or cold medicines, but we did want to help her feel better. What could we have done? Would honey have helped?

A: The good news is that for most children and in most cases, the common cold won't cause serious complications. The bad news, as anyone with small children knows, is that colds will absolutely convey a certain level of discomfort and misery. Waking hours can become marathons of crankiness because the young patient is beset by aches and pains, copious mucus and feeling generally crummy. At night, the little one's bouts of coughing mean a sleepless night for parent and child alike.

However, tempting as it may be, don't reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, OTC cough medicines are not recommended for children younger than 2 years old. Many doctors recommend waiting even longer than that to administer OTC medications, so check with your pediatrician to see what they recommend. And as long as we're on the subject, prescription cough medicines that contain codeine or hydrocodone should never be used in children younger than 18 years old. Always read the labels of OTC cough medicines before dispensing them to children because some may contain codeine.

We've successfully mapped the human genome but as of yet, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics, which target bacteria, aren't effective against colds, which are caused by viruses. And with OTC medications not suitable for young children, we're left with the comfort measures our grandmothers would have approved of.

The main symptoms of the common cold are the result of the immune system fighting off the virus. Whether it's fever, sneezing, coughing or that nonstop output of mucus, each plays a physiological role in getting your child healthy again. The goal isn't to eliminate the symptoms completely, but instead to make them easier to live with. That means keeping your little one hydrated with plenty of fluids, both warm and cold. Using a cold air humidifier can help ease nasal congestion. When nasal mucus becomes thick and gluey, you can use saline drops, available at the pharmacy, to help loosen things up. Tender, inflamed nostrils are a particularly unpleasant side effect of a runny nose. We find that a dab of A&D Ointment rubbed around the perimeter of the nostrils offers instant relief and prevents further chapping.

Honey, as you mentioned, can help soothe a raw and inflamed throat in children older than a year. In fact, several studies have shown that honey actually relieves cough symptoms and can help kids to get a better night's sleep. Please note that honey is not recommended for children younger than a year old because it may occasionally contain bacteria that can cause botulism. Also important is a balanced diet and plenty of rest, so that the body's immune system can do its best work.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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