Approaching the Cold Season…Naturally

Nice article written by my pediatrician about some ways to face the upcoming cold season.  Some preventative suggestions, and some more natural remedy options.


There’s lots of coughing and sneezing going on at the Whole Child Center—and probably every other pediatric office in the world—this month. “ ’Tis the season to be wheezin’ ” we used to lament back in my residency days. I would spend hours in the ER asthma room—yes, a dedicated room for kids with asthma—administering oxygen and nebulizer treatments until MY head was spinning from all the medication floating around in the air. I kept thinking, “There has got to be a better way.”

It turns out there is. While medications can be life-saving and do have their place in acute treatment, there are a number of natural approaches that can help prevent and soothe many common childhood ailments. A lot of the questions I’m asked are about these natural ways to prevent and treat viral illnesses and symptoms, and I really try to help families focus on the prevention aspect: Staying well. An ounce of prevention…Well, you know how it goes. What I primarily counsel parents is that fever, cough, and runny nose—these things we think of as “sickness”—are not necessarily evils to be completely suppressed and stamped out. Human bodies, especially children’s, have a marvelous tendency to rebalance when left alone.

That is not, however, how most of us were raised. (I’m always amazed when I encounter adults whose parents raised them in the 1960’s and 1970’s with a focus on natural health remedies.) The “one ill – one pill” solution of modern healthcare depends on finding a quick and easy short-term solution to all ailments. Our health care system, which I have come to think of as a “disease-treatment” system for the most part, has promoted the use of over-the-counter (OTC) cough-and-cold pharmaceuticals for many years. Most parents are taught to treat every condition aggressively to suppress symptoms. I’ve noticed that parents (and, it seems, especially grandparents) have tremendous fear about fever in particular. Fever, my friends, is not our enemy. It is simply a sign that the body is fighting infection or inflammation. While I am not in favor of children suffering, there are times where the body is best able to heal in the short- and long-term without aggressive pharmaceutical intervention.

Many pediatricians and parents have known for quite some time that cough-and-cold OTC treatments are questionably effective. What works for little Jane or Johnny one time may not work the next, and what works for one child may be of no use for another. What has come to light more recently is the dubious safety record of typical OTC preparations. The FDA has issued strong warnings urging parents to be careful about the use of these OTC meds in kids, especially for those under 2 years of age. Many ER visits per year and calls to poison control centers are due to adverse effects from OTC cold-and-cough medication use.

So parents are rightfully left to ask, “What is safe and effective for me to use for coughs and colds?” I start with simple, inexpensive and common-sense lifestyle approaches: Washing hands, changing clothes, getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, eating healthly foods, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough rest and sleep. I cannot overestimate the importance of these deceptively simple measures. But what other natural therapies are potentially helpful?

For Prevention:

1.  Vitamin D: Now linked to many acute and chronic health conditions, deficiency of vitamin D is also connected to a higher incidence of respiratory tract infections. It has been speculated that the higher prevalence of influenza in winter months corresponds to a decrease in the population’s vitamin D levels as sunlight exposure decreases. Approximately 70 percent of children have been found to be vitamin D deficient in recent surveys. It is possible that those individuals with vitamin D deficiencies are at higher risk to contract flu and develop complications from these infections. Historically, the most common sources of vitamin D are sunlight and supplemented dairy products. Sunlight may be tough to come by in the winter (and sunscreen use during the summer has limited our exposure, too), and a rising number of children cannot tolerate dairy products. One alternative is a vitamin D supplement given on a daily basis. The AAP recommends 400IU of D3 per day, but some children will need more than that to optimize vitamin D levels. Check with your health care practitioner if you want to test your child’s level.

2. Probiotics: Probiotics are bacteria and other organisms that colonize our gastrointestinal systems during, and shortly after, birth. They regulate important immune and digestive functions. One recent study demonstrated that daily probiotic supplementation was a safe and effective way to reduce fever and cold symptoms, as well as reduce the number of antibiotic prescriptions and missed school days due to illness. This is a major finding, and if a conventional OTC product could do this, I’m sure we would be reading about it in every major media publication. So how can you get probiotics into your children? Yogurt and other cultured foods can be helpful. For those who cannot eat dairy or choose not to, there are an abundant number of good quality probiotic supplements in the refrigerated section of your local health food store.

For Treatment:

1. Elderberry: These dark berries rich in antioxidants come from the Elder tree (Sambucus). In one study, adults with flu symptoms who took elderberry syrup for five days had a significantly reduced length of illness. Another study found that elderberry was particularly effective against the H1N1 flu strain in a laboratory setting. How those studies translate to children is still a topic of debate, but as elderberries are essentially a highly concentrated antioxidant food, I recommend a dose three times per day to those suffering from flu-like symptoms—along with chicken soup (or a vegetarian option), of course!

2. Homeopathics: These are my first choice for OTC symptom relief. Finding the right homeopathic remedy for each individual child can be tricky, but the good news is that homeopathy is extraordinarily safe. If you pick the wrong remedy, nothing—good or bad—should happen. But if you hit on the right one, voila! It’s magical how quickly these remedies can work. Oscillococcinum is the most well-known flu remedy, but I am also a fan of Boiron Chestal for cough and Boiron Coldcalm for cold symptoms. Follow the manufacturer’s directions if you choose to use any of these remedies.

There are many other options in the natural world for cold, cough and flu prevention and treatment. Some families rely on traditional, cultural practices like Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda while others swear by Reiki or other energy healing modalities. Sometimes doing nothing is absolutely the right thing to do. As the popular medical aphorism goes, “Primum non nocere” (first do no harm). Obviously, check with your pediatrician if your child shows signs of dehydration, breathing distress or just doesn’t seem right to you. Trust your intuition. That’s the best advice I can give any parent. OK, now bundle up and go get some vitamin D!

-Dr. Lawrence Rosen, KIWI columnist


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