Winter bugs: a parents survival guide

We are now entering what I officially like to call ‘bug season’. Yes, now the hayfever sniffles & snot have subsided, the grot of colds and bugs begins. This is a particularly trying time when you have small children. A few years ago I had my very own winter of discontent. My then 1 yr old and 3 yr old were diseased from the 17th September until mid March…yes I remember the dates! There was a never ending stream of temperatures, snot, vomiting and vile whinging in our household. It was not a happy spell, but it suffices to say it did not last forever and they seem fairly unscathed by the many months of being force fed calpol.

I’m sure my patients get utterly sick of hearing me mumble ‘it’s probably just a virus’ when they lovingly bring their hot and bothered little ones to see me. The first thing to say is that that often it isn’t ‘just’ a virus. Viruses can be just as nasty and make you feel just as rotten as bacterial infections, the only difference being that antibiotics aren’t going to make a jot of difference to them. So leaving your doctors without a prescription does not in any way mean your child isn’t feeling thoroughly miserable and is genuinely poorly.

The fact is however that over 90% of childhood colds are caused by viruses. These are usually called ‘upper respiratory tract infections’ or URTI’s. There are a huge numbers of potential viruses that cause URTI’s, with 7 or so being the usual culprits. The viruses like being in warm and damp areas – so little throats, nasal passages and lungs make excellent homes for them. They tend to cause a myriad of snotty/grotty symptoms such as temperatures, sore throats, runny nose, ear ache, coughs and headaches. I’m sure you are very familiar with these…

A very common worry I encounter from parents is the frequency and duration of these bugs. Research has shown that children often get up to 12 separate infections each year. This is why it often feels like your youngsters have been perpetually ill for months and month, where as in fact they have most likely aquired one separate bug after another. Symptoms can typically last up to 2 weeks at a stretch and (bad news for working parents I’m afraid) they can last even longer if your child is in day care.

So what can you do to make your little one feel better? Unfortunately the options really are fairly limited! Trying to control symptoms is the main plan usually using good old paracetamol plus or minus ibuprofen. It’s totally fine to give both together for a few days if needed, and this can be particularly helpful for stubborn fevers that require the double whammy to bring them down.

Unfortunately there is no convincing evidence that any of the over-the-counter cold-remedies are of any benefit at all for URTI’s – so my advice is always to save your money and not bother. Certainly never give such products to children under the age of 2 as very sadly there have been fatalities linked to various such products in the past.

Steam is a great favourite of mine and one I always bang on about to my long-suffering patients! Steamy bathrooms can very useful for coughing and congested children. Also snotty noses are not conducive to happy feeding in babies, as if your nose is out of action it’s rather difficult to suck and breath at the same time. I have found that saline drops can be really helpful if this situation to aid the ‘de-bunging’ of little noses.

There is increasing interest in alternative or complementary medicine in trying to prevent and treat colds and viral infections. I certainly do not profess to be an expert in such matters but there is a fair amount of scientific literature on the subject. Echinacea is probably the product you may be most familiar with as it is thought to possibly reduce the frequency of viral URTI’s. Although some studies suggest there may be some truth in this, there is unfortunately not enough evidence or safety data yet to conclusively say yea or nay.

The other only extra titbit which you may find useful is something your Granny probably swore by. That is the wonder of honey! It has been shown that a spoon of the golden wonder stuff can actually reduce night-time coughing in children (over ones only)…good to know eh’!!

I find that many parents feel either short changed, or faintly embarrassed to have brought their child to see me and been given the ‘its viral’ chat. I’d like to stress that having your poorly child seen and properly assessed by a doctor is always appropriate and something you should never apologise for. However please don’t feel miffed if you don’t leave with a prescription for banana medicine; don’t forget that 90% of other parents are in the same boat!

I wish I had a extra secret nugget of information to pass on, but sadly there is no magic solution to either preventing or curing these miserable viral bug. Bring on the spring and happy sniffing!


One response

  1. Great post! We swear by steam and honey in this house! It’s very common in Sweden to add honey to tea. Mr One has had so much weak milky honey tea the last few weeks that every time he sees me with a steaming mug in my hand he’s calling out ‘tee pleez’ – haha! His first two word sentence!


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