Study: Classes Improve Care of Kids' Colds

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Harvard Medical School
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Study: Classes Improve Care of Kids' Colds

News Review From Harvard Medical School

April 7, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Classes Improve Care of Kids' Colds

An education program for parents can reduce incorrect use of medicines and emergency room visits for colds, a new study found. The study included 154 families enrolled in Early Head Start. This is a government program for low-income infants, toddlers and pregnant women. Parents were randomly divided into 2 groups. One group learned about what causes colds and flu. They were taught about how to use saline drops, a bulb syringe, a humidifier and other tools that did not involve medicines. The program also discussed over-the-counter medicines. Parents learned when and how to use them, when to avoid them and how to measure them. They also learned about proper use of antibiotics and home remedies and when to see a doctor. The other group of parents got no extra instruction. Families then reported weekly for 5 months on illnesses in their children and how they cared for them. People who got the classes were only half as likely as the other group to take their children to the ER for a cold. They were only one-third as likely to use or measure a medicine incorrectly. The journal Pediatrics published the study April 7.


By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., M.H.C.M.
Harvard Medical School 


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Children catch colds all the time. Some can get as many as 8 to 10 colds in a year! Colds are caused by a virus in the nose and throat. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Mild fever

Many parents do not know how to treat the common cold. They are not sure when to seek care. They wonder if an antibiotic is needed. Some even take their children to the emergency room when it is not necessary. 

A new study from the journal Pediatrics looked at the effect of teaching parents about the common cold. The researchers gave classes to 76 families in Early Head Start. This is a program for low-income families that helps prepare young children for school. Most of the families in the study were Latino and spoke Spanish.

 The classes taught the following topics:

  • What causes a cold
  • The difference between a cold and the flu
  • How to use a "cold-care kit"
  • Whether and how to use over-the-counter medicines
  • How to measure medicines
  • Home remedies
  • Proper use of antibiotics
  • When and where a family should seek care
  • How to prepare for a visit to the doctor

After the classes, the researchers called the families every week for five months to see how much they learned. They also visited some of the families in their homes. They did the same for another group of Early Head Start families that did not go to the classes.

The study found that the parents who took the classes were less likely to:

  • Take their child to the emergency room because of a cold
  • Give over-the-counter medicines incorrectly
  • Measure medicines incorrectly
  • Have wrong beliefs about home remedies

The researchers say that teaching parents about the common cold worked to lower unnecessary emergency room visits and harmful practices. Using Early Head Start for teaching is a good way to spread important health information to families.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

There is no cure for the common cold. The good news is that most colds get better without any special treatment. If your child is 3 months old or younger, call the doctor at the first sign of illness. An older child usually does not need to visit a doctor unless the symptoms become more serious.

 You can help your child feel better at home.

  • Make a "cold-care kit":
    • Salt-water drops (saline)
    • Bulb syringe
    • Tissues
    • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
    • Thermometer
    • Measuring tool to give the correct amount of medicine
  • Put a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer in your child's room. This makes the air moist to help clear congestion in the nose and chest.
  • Use salt-water nose drops and a bulb syringe to clear a stuffy nose. This works best for babies younger than 6 months.
  • Make sure your child is drinking lots of liquids.
  • If your child has a fever, ask your doctor about giving medicines that can lower the fever.
  • Provide lots of love and care. This is the best medicine of all!

Beware of over-the-counter cold medicines. They really do not help young children. Even worse, they can be harmful. The American Academy of Pediatrics says these medicines should:

  • Never be given to children under the age of 4
  • Be used in children 4 to 6 years only if recommended by your child's doctor

Give medicine carefully.

  • Always read the label. Pay attention to the name of the drug, expiration date, dosage and how to give the medicine.
  • Give the exact recommended dose. Use the measuring tool that comes with the medicine. Do not use teaspoons or tablespoons from your kitchen.
  • Do not give your child two medicines that contain the same ingredient. Too much of one ingredient can cause an accidental overdose.
  • Never give adult medicines to your child.

Do NOT give antibiotics.

  • Antibiotics are only used to treat infections caused by bacteria, NOT viruses like the common cold.
  • Antibiotics will not help the cold go away. They also will not help your child feel better.
  • When antibiotics are used incorrectly, they might not work when they are really needed.

Be careful with home remedies.

  • These may not be proven to work or to be safe.
  • There are some home remedies that can be a part of your child's treatment.
  • Speak with your doctor before using home remedies.


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Programs like Early Head Start can be used to spread important health information to more families. You can expect your pediatrician to discuss other ways to help your child feel better. She will also talk with you about how to safely give medicine for your child's cold, if needed.

Last updated April 07, 2014

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