Cold and flu season may technically end sometime in March, but cold viruses still lurk year-round, even in summer. What’s a parent to do when it’s warm outside, but your child has a cold?
In the fall and winter, when staying inside—and in close proximity to others is the norm—it's all too easy for young kids to catch colds. But with young children experiencing up to eight or more colds in a single year, coming down with a cold virus in summer is "less common, but still not that unusual," says Dr. Gregg Alexander, an Ohio-based pediatrician and father of two children. Cold viruses generally spread through physical contact with others who have colds, breathing in virus-containing droplets, or handling contaminated toys and objects. Children are apt to catch colds in such group settings as daycare and summer camp, but going on vacation in summer may also pose risks. According to Dr. Alexander, "When families travel by plane, crowded flights and breathing in re-circulated air for long periods of time make it very easy for viruses to spread."
Suspect your air conditioner is to blame for your baby's summer cold? It might be, but perhaps not in the way you think. "Cold air does not cause colds," explains Dr. Alexander. But the dry air created by air conditioners can dry out the mucus membranes of the nose, mouth, and throat—making it easier for viral infections to take hold (the same goes for dry air created by winter heating systems). If you do have an air conditioner in your child's room, consider running a cool mist humidifier at night to replenish moisture, Dr. Alexander suggests.
It's easy to mistake a cold in summer for allergies—and vice versa. Colds and allergic reactions to dust, pollen, and other allergens do share some symptoms in common, including a runny nose and congestion. Key differences should help you tell the two apart. If your child has a cold:
1) Symptoms typically include stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, cough, and sometimes fever.
2) Symptoms may last from one week to up to 10 or 12 days.
3) Nasal discharge usually turns from clear to white and often yellowish green over the course of the virus.
If your child has allergies:
1) Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes.
2) No fever is present.
3) Depending on the type of allergic reaction, symptoms may last much longer than two weeks.
Still stumped? "Kids are usually more miserable with a summer cold: there is often fever, aches and pains, and a cough. But if you just can't tell for sure whether it's a cold or allergies then it's time to call the pediatrician," Dr. Alexander recommends.
Recent children's medication recalls may make it seem trickier than ever to treat a cold, but some of the most effective treatment options for colds are surprisingly simple.To ease congestion, add a cool midst humidifier to your child's room or spend a few minutes in a steamy bathroom to get stuck mucus moving. At bedtime, if you have an older child try elevating his or her head by adding an extra pillow or placing the mattress at a slight incline to encourage nasal drainage and a more restful night's sleep. (Note: infants should never use pillows.) For breastfeeding or bottle-feeding infants, prevent congestion from interfering with feeding by holding your child in as upright as possible at feeding time—and if you are nursing, keep breastfeeding! Breast milk naturally contains antibodies to help your baby fight infection. For toddlers and preschoolers, a warm bowl of chicken soup is just as soothing in summer as it is in winter (studies actually back up the medicinal value of the folk remedy). And don't forget frozen ice pops, the ultimate summer treat for sore throats! Look for frozen pops made with real fruit and little or no added sugar. There is no way to cure a cold virus, but "lots of rest, fluids, and good nutrition go a long way in helping to support the immune system as it fights infection," Dr. Alexander reminds parents.
Cold remedies to stay away from? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns parents to avoid giving any over-the-counter cough and cold medications to infants and children younger than 2 years old because of the risk of life-threatening side effects. (The AAP is considering extending this warning to children under 4.) As the AAP points out, several studies show that cold and cough products don't work in children younger than 6 years and have potentially serious side effects when incorrectly administered. If you decide to use medicine to relieve a fever, the AAP recommends giving only acetaminophen to babies 6 months or younger and either acetaminophen or ibuprofen to a child older than 6 months. Ask your child's doctor for the right dosage for your child's age and size before administering.
Instructing your child to blow her nose at the slightest sign of a sniffle may actually make things worse, says Dr. Alexander. Despite everything we've been led to believe, it now appears better to have children sniff and swallow nasal secretions, rather than blow them out. As doctors have found out, pressure created from blowing may actually force the virus into the sinuses and ear canals, potentially leading to further infection. So, if a stuffy nose ins't bothering you child, it isn't necessary to constantly make them blow out all the mucus. If older babies and toddlers don't quite grasp the concept of sniff and swallow, try instilling a few drops of warm tap water or pure saline into the nasal passages and then using cotton swabs to wipe out loosened mucus. For very young babies, use saline (saltwater) nose drops to thin nasal discharge. Place a few drops of the saline into each nostril followed by gentle bulb suction. Since some saline drops may also contain cold medications, ask your child's doctor about which brands to use.
When it comes to making a decision about what summer activities to skip due to illness, "parents know their child best. If a child is energetic, despite having a cold, it's probably OK to still engage in an activity," recommends Dr. Alexander. If you do go ahead with outings, bring along extra fluids and make sure your child is able to rest adequately between activities. Summer camps and summer daycare programs likely have a sick child exclusion policy and rules governing medicine administration. Find out before summer starts what kinds of policies extend to cold symptoms.
According to AAP recommendations, an older baby or toddler with a cold usually doesn't need to see a doctor unless the condition becomes more serious. For babies 3 months or younger, however, the AAP says call the pediatrician at the first sign of illness. In young babies, symptoms can be misleading and may quickly develop into more serious illnesses, such as bronchiolitis, croup, or pneumonia. Whatever the age of your child, "parents shouldn't hesitate to contact their pediatrician if something worries them," says Dr. Alexander. The AAP also urges parents to seek medical care if the following symptoms are noted:
1) Nostrils are widening with each breath, the skin above or below the ribs sucks in with each breath (retractions), or your child is breathing rapidly or having any difficulty breathing.
2) The lips or nails turn blue.
3) Nasal mucus persists for longer than 10 to 14 days.
4) The cough just won't go away (it lasts more than one week).
5) Your child has pain in her ear.
6) Your child's temperature is over 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius).
7) Your child seems excessively sleepy (lethargic) or cranky.
The pediatrician may want your child seen right away, or you may be asked to watch symptoms closely at home and report back within a specified period of time.
It may not be cold and flu season, but cold prevention techniques are just as important to practice in summer. Teach children to frequently wash their hands with soap and water as a way to cut down on germs—and still take the time to show children how to cough into their elbows and not their hands as a way to reduce germ transmission. Because it's summer, some cold prevention practices may be even more important. Make sure children drink plenty of fluids as a way to prevent dehydration and maintain body fluid levels. Parents may be lax with bedtime in summer, but be vigilant in making sure your child is still getting enough hours of rest and sleep.
Articles and news stories on children's colds are everywhere in winter, but in summer, it may take more digging to find the latest need-to-know information. If you turn to the Web for information, Dr. Alexander recommends parents seek the most up-to-date information possible—and make sure it comes from a reputable information source, such as the AAP. To investigate whether medicine you may have leftover from winter is still safe to use, call your child's pediatrician.