The first glimpses of fall are here! Cooler breezes, beautiful colors, and happy thoughts of the holidays right around the corner are putting a smile on your face. Nothing could ruin the loveliness of sweater weather—except, maybe, the fact that your child is sneezing up a storm, her nose is running like a faucet, and she’s starting to cough. Hay fever? No, it’s not pollen season; you would know if lots of other people were sneezing and the pollen count were on the news.
Cold or flu? A definite possibility. With the start of school, all of the children being grouped together in close quarters for most of the day sharing books, toys, and snacks create the perfect environment for the spread of viruses and bacteria.
Allergies? Perhaps. Maybe you’re traveling to visit grandma over fall break and your child is allergic to grandma’s cat. Or you’ve rented a house at the beach to soak up the last remaining warmth as summer fades away and black mold is lurking in the wallboards.
How to tell the difference
You’ll need to know the difference to know how best to treat your child but remember, no matter what kind of allergies, cold, or flu she has, antibiotics won’t work. They don’t work for allergies, of course, because allergies are not an infection. But did you know that they rarely work for colds, coughs, and the flu? These are almost always viral illnesses for which your doctor can only prescribe bed rest and plenty of fluids. You can do better than that with natural remedies, many of which you already have in your kitchen. But let’s first try to figure out what’s making your child sneeze so much.
Allergies, colds, and the flu have some of their main symptoms in common: sneezing, runny nose, and sometimes a cough triggered by postnasal drip. The additional symptoms of airborne allergies involve itchiness and are limited to the head:
- itchy, watery, red eyes
- an itchy nose or palate (she may try to itch the roof of her mouth with her tongue)
- itchy ears (you may see her trying to bore her fingers into her ears).
But she won’t feel sick all over the way she would with a cold or flu, which has these additional whole-body symptoms:
- malaise, that sense of just not feeling well.
She could also have a headache or sore throat with a cold or flu.
Flu sufferers may also have these symptoms:
- extreme fatigue, feeling so tired they can’t get out of bed and can hardly open their eyes
- nausea, even vomiting
Coughing can occasionally cause vomiting, but that’s from coughing too deeply, not from a sick stomach.
Preventing allergies focuses on filtering pollen, dust, mold, and pet hairs out of the air. HEPA filters are best because they take out the tiniest particles. You can get a small one for your child’s bedroom or a larger one for the HVAC system for the whole house. You can even get a personal-size portable HEPA filter for travel if a family member suffers from such serious allergies that the family vacation could be disrupted.
To prevent colds and flu, focus on keeping your immune system healthy. The easiest way is to get all of your servings of fruits and veggies and to exercise regularly. You’ll get natural vitamin D from the sun, although you want to avoid direct sunlight during the middle of the day. You can also take D3 as a vitamin supplement to ward off colds and flu. Many natural foods help your immune system, including honey, which contains a natural probiotic that stimulates the immune system. Speaking of probiotics, a probiotic supplement is another excellent way to stave off colds and the flu as well as aiding digestion.
Treatments: Natural and drugstore options
If you prefer drugstore medicines, a mild antihistamine like Claritin, Zyrtec, or Allegra will stop a runny nose no matter what the diagnosis. A saline nasal rinse can help wash mucus and pollen out of the nose, helping your child to breathe easier.
Here are some natural options, some of them already in your own kitchen:
• Honey: Research shows that honey can inhibit the flu virus, and can help ease nighttime coughs in children better than dextromethorphan (the active ingredient in Robitussin). It’s even effective against black mold. Allergy sufferers may also find relief from using local honey, perhaps because the pollen in the honey contains special nutrients that reduce allergic reactions.
• Lemons: Freshly squeezed lemonade or limeade have anti-oxidant properties. Sweeten with honey for extra benefits.
• Ginger: It is active against the common cold virus and RSV, a type of upper respiratory virus likely to be active in the summer. It’s also good for hay fever and other allergies. Grate a little ginger into soda water and imagine you’re making your own fresh ginger ale! For natural sweetening, stevia may be easier to stir in than honey.
• Vitamin D: It can help treat as well as prevent these summertime nuisances because vitamin D is necessary for so many different functions in your body.
Try any of these natural or drugstore options before resorting to antibiotics. The FDA, Centers for Disease Control, and World Health Organization have all alerted us to the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have asked doctors not to prescribe antibiotics for conditions unlikely to respond to them—like allergies, colds, coughs, and the flu. You can do your part to make sure antibiotics remain effective for the situations where we really need them by not asking your doctor to prescribe antibiotics for these common conditions.
Head into your holidays informed and ready to catch symptoms early and treat them effectively, so that you and your family can freely enjoy each other and this lovely season!
Gustavo Ferrer, MD
Dr. Gustavo Ferrer is President of Intensive Care Experts in Weston, Fla., a practice dedicated to bringing high-quality medical advancements to acute care hospitals, long-term care hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and home-care patients. He is the author of the new book, Cough Cures: The Best Natural Remedies and Over-the-Counter Drugs for Acute and Chronic Cough (Moxie Life Press, April 2016), which challenges our Western mindset that overmedicates. He is an expert on respiratory ailments and critical care who has been featured in USA Today, NBC News, CNN en Español, the Miami Herald, and on Radio Caracol Miami. Dr. Ferrer has also appeared in many Latin American national newspapers in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, and was named to the “Best Doctors in the U.S.” list by U.S. News & World Report.