Medicines of little use when treating a cold

From Tots to Teens

November 07, 1995|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My toddler just came down with her first cold of the season, and I'm frustrated. I called her pediatrician's office for a prescription and was not given one. What should I get to treat her colds this winter?

Like your pediatrician, we do not prescribe cold medications for young children. We don't even suggest you buy one at the drugstore without a prescription.

When parents ask for a prescription for a child's cold, they are often requesting an antibiotic. Antibiotics commonly prescribed for children -- for example, amoxicillin and erythromycin -- are of no use for colds. Colds are caused by viruses. Those antibiotics treat only bacterial infections.

Studies have been done in which some children receive a cold medicine and others receive a placebo that looks like the medicine but does not contain the active ingredients. The studies show that the cold medicine makes little or no difference in symptoms or how long the cold lasts.

The ingredients in many cold medicines can cause undesirable and even serious side effects. This seems to happen more among young children than among older children and adults.

Among the possible side effects are irritability, dizziness, fatigue and nightmares. Some children have even had such psychiatric symptoms as hallucinations.

We think these side effects are too big a risk when the medication does little or no good.

That having been said, we are sympathetic with a parent who has a child with a cold. Colds are an occupational hazard for a pediatrician, and we know they can make a person miserable.

There are ways to make the child feel better that do not involve medicine. We suggest offering your child plenty of liquids, wiping her nose with a soft handkerchief (don't pinch or make her blow), use a cool mist vaporizer in her room while she sleeps, and keep cigarette smoke out of her environment.

It is fine to give her acetaminophen if fever seems to be troubling her with her cold, but it is not necessary. Fever is probably one of the body's defense mechanisms for fighting the virus.

Remember that a cold can make your daughter unhappy but cannot make her seriously ill. If she seems sicker than you expect with a cold, call her doctor.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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