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?