With cold-and-flu season well under way, it's hard not to look for solutions beyond Lady Macbeth-level hand-washing and avoiding touching your face. The urge to snap up the latest natural remedy or preventative tincture recommended by a friend – or increasingly influential experts like TV's Dr. Mehmet Oz – can lead to a medicine cabinet or fridge full of oregano oil, astragalus tinctures, superdoses of Vitamin D and other rays of hope.
But how much of this stuff is appropriate for kids? In a study that appeared in a recent Pediatrics journal, 50 per cent of parents surveyed in the emergency rooms of two Canadian hospitals reported using some form of alternative medicine or practice with their children. It's understandable that parents are casting about for alternatives. Since 2008, Health Canada has discouraged the use of over-the-counter cough-and-cold medications with active ingredients for children under 6. The hundreds of alternative products lining shelves, however, carry no official warnings or guidelines.
"I totally get that your kid goes to bed and two hours later they're coughing and you're going to Google every possible remedy until they're well," says Dartmouth, N.S. naturopathic doctor Jennifer Salib Huber, adding that she reminds parents that getting sick is part of childhood.
Vancouver pediatrician Ran Goldman points out that studies on some ingredients such as zinc and echinacea remain mixed. If there were one magic product that worked, we'd all be taking it, he adds. "Parents want to help their children," says Goldman, a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society's Drug Therapy and Hazardous Substances Committee. "Every season there are new products. It's very confusing. And people are willing to spend money."
A few points to consider:
Kid-friendly ingredients and smaller doses
Salib Huber says while the herbs she uses in her practice are generally safe, there are differences in how adults and children should be treated and parents should consult their doctor before they offer anything other than standard doses of Vitamin C, D and probiotics. In other words, anything that comes in a tincture or capsule form should be given only after you consult a health-care practitioner.
"If you're getting into herbs, they should be selected for that person's symptoms, not applied as a general rule," she says. "You're more likely to get an accurate dose. Dosing for herbs is based on age and weight, like drugs are."
One health product she uses with her three kids is a child's version of a "Deep Immunity" tincture using astragalus root, made by the Canadian company St. Francis Herb Farm. The children's version includes far fewer ingredients – and omits licorice entirely. Salib Huber still uses licorice with children in her practice as a expectorant, but in smaller doses and a shorter period of time than she would with an adult.
Hold the "big guns" for complications
Salib Huber saves what she calls the "big guns," such as the very popular oregano oil, which has anti-microbial properties, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an anti-oxidant recently recommended by Dr. Oz as part of a "Cold and Flu Rescue Pack" for serious cases and complications. She does not recommend them as preventative tools except in cases in which patients are prone to, say, sinus infections every time they get a cold. Because of the chance of toxicity, she says she hasn't used oregano oil on a child in a long time and would not treat a cold with NAC.
"Most of the time, it's about reassuring parents that kids are meant to get sick. They're not meant to have complications, so if your child is having complications, that needs to be looked at by their medical doctor and naturopathic doctor."
Ask about side-effects
Oregano oil can upset the good bacteria in the gut, Salib Huber says. Likewise, massive doses of vitamin C can also cause stomach problems. "You may not want your child to have diarrhea while they're coughing at the same time," she says.
Goldman has researched the risks of vitamin overdoses and vitamin-medication interactions and says especially for children with chronic health- care issues, parents need to be mindful of the potential for unsafe overlaps. For example, the maximum dose of vitamin D for children is 4,000 IUs, so parents should check labels to be sure they're not accidentally overdosing.
Focus on comfort
Goldman and Salib Huber agree that some of the best comfort measures parents can use come from the naturopathic side of the ledger. In interviews, they both cite recent research that honey works to reduce the frequency and severity of night-time coughing. Salib Huber has it in every bathroom in her house. (Both also note that honey should not be given to children under the age of 1 due to the risk of botulism.)
Salib Huber also suggests using steam inhalations with eucalyptus or peppermint oils to break up mucous. And "kitchen teas" – i.e. not specially prepared medicinal teas – made with ginger, marshmallow and yarrow can soothe a sore throat and are safe for kids. And as mundane as it seems, there is research that chicken soup really does help.