Natural Cold Remedies for Kids

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Lisa is a writer, budding photographer and herb enthusiast. She enjoys poking around in the garden, creating in the kitchen and reading a good book (when she’s not answering the call of “Mom!” from her five children). 

Cold and flu season is upon us. Though we try to practice healthy habits to fend off illness (washing hands thoroughly, directing a cough into the crook of the elbow, etc.), colds usually catch up with us at least once during the season. I always feel particularly bad for kids when they are battling a cold. Children are usually so vibrant, and when they are down, they are really down.

There are several ways to ease the symptoms and lessen the duration of your child’s cold. All of these methods are also safe for babies and toddlers, unless otherwise noted. Mom and Dad can benefit from them, too!

At The Onset of an Illness

Kids (especially babies) have a strange way of carrying on as normal, even when they are clearly sick. They also tend to have a change in symptoms very quickly, such as spiking a fever or feeling run-down when just minutes before they appeared to be fine. Remember to push fluids to avoid dehydration and let them get as much sleep as they need. Keep an eye on fevers, especially in newborns and infants. But remember that a low-grade fever is simply a sign that the body is fighting off an infection, and does not necessarily require medicines. Lukewarm baths usually do the trick.

Help kids fight colds by encouraging plenty of rest. Photo by mollypop/Courtesy Flickr

I use an herbal steam at the very first sign of a sore throat or stuffy nose for everyone in our household. It has gotten so that whenever my kids feel a sniffle or throat tickle coming on, they pull out a kitchen pot and come to me announcing their need for a steam. To use this treatment, bring a few cups of water just to boiling, remove it from the heat, add a few drops of essential oil, and then position your child’s face above the pot, breathing in the steam. (This will be very HOT at first, so use caution. Also, ease into the steam, since the essential oils can be very intense at first.) Make a tent with a towel over the head to better direct the steam. This treatment soothes dry noses and throats, loosens mucus in the chest and nose (so have tissues handy), and I believe it delivers the antibacterial properties of the essential oils to breathing passages, although I have yet to find any documentation directly addressing my theory.

You can do this treatment several times a day, but add new drops of oil to the water each time, since exposing essential oils to extreme heat reduces their effectiveness. Older children generally don’t have any problems with this treatment. If you have a baby, toddler, or very active child, you may need to make a tent with a sheet over a few chairs and sit with them on your lap. Good herbs to try are lavender, mint, rosemary, tea tree and thyme.

What about echinacea?

It seems there are always new, slightly differing reports about the effectiveness and purpose echinacea serves in fighting a cold. Some research says you should take it at the beginning of a cold to cut it off. Others studies say it serves to lessen the duration of a cold. However, all these studies have been done with adults. There are a lot of parents who administer this herb to their children and are happy with the result. But rare reports have been made of children who experience rashes or difficulty breathing while taking (high) doses of echinacea, so use your best judgment.

Stuffy noses can be helped with saline.
Photo by
David Castillo Dominici/Courtesy Free Digital Photos

Nasal Saline for Stuffy Noses

Perhaps the simplest and most overlooked natural treatment for a stuffy nose is saline. Pediatricians frequently recommend using it for babies, followed by use of a nasal aspirator. But the idea doesn’t get much billing in treating older children. I think the reason is that older children REALLY don’t like the idea of putting liquid up their noses. But it is so effective, I persist in convincing my children to do it. (Permission granted for you to resort to bribery!) Once they experience the relief it brings, they’ll submit to the treatment again. Tip the head back and put a few drops of saline in each nostril, keep it in there for a few seconds to allow it to break up the mucus in the nasal cavity, and then blow it out in a tissue.

Warning: Do not use contact lens saline solution! It is not the same thing, and it really burns! (Wisdom from one who tried to contact solution on herself in a pinch.) You can purchase nasal saline from the store or make your own.

Chest Congestion Remedies

Have you heard about the remedy of putting vapo-rub on the soles of the feet to open the lungs? It works. But if you would rather avoid using a petroleum-based product, you can use a few drops of eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils diluted in a small amount of vegetable oil instead. Rub this onto the chest, the feet, and put a little under the nose. Nursing moms can rub a small amount onto the breast (well away from where it could get into baby’s eyes or mouth, or where it can get onto their hands) to ease breathing during feeding time. Just remember that essential oils must be diluted before applying to the skin.

Herbal inhalers are simple and easy to use. You can buy one, but a homemade inhaler works just as well. Traditionally, glass vials or lined metal containers are used for inhalers to avoid altering the oil or breaking down the container. But for the brief time your kids will need it, you can use a small plastic container. A small, clean, plastic spice jar that has a lid with small holes, such as for powders like cinnamon, works great. Or you could use a plastic salt shaker. Stir together a tablespoon of salt (such as kosher, sea, or Epsom salts) and 5 to 10 drops of essential oil in the jar. Your child can then inhale the scent and it will open the nose and lungs. Having their very own inhaler to carry around makes kids feel special–you could even let them decorate the jar if they are feeling up to it. Children love having a choice, so you can let them pick the scent they would like to use, too. Some suggestions are: eucalyptus, mint, rosemary and lavender.

Note: Essential oils are NEVER to be ingested, so only children who are well past putting foreign objects in their mouths should be given an essential oil inhaler for personal use.

Natural Treatment for Sore Throat

Traditional natural treatments for a sore throat include gargling with salt water and taking a large spoonful of *honey. These are effective treatments I have used on myself, but I have yet to have any success getting my children to do them. A salt water gargle is a pretty intense experience, and my kids won’t gargle with it long enough to be effective. And they tend to gag when trying to eat all that honey off the spoon, so I just load their tea with as much honey as they will take. Herbal ice pops are a treat that will reduce swelling in the throat and a painless way to get your child to take herbs. I also use a vaporizer in the patient’s room and maintain the moisture in the house with a humidifier.

*Warning: Do not give honey to infants 12 months and younger, due to the risk of botulism.

When I recommend sleeping with a wet washcloth in the mouth to soothe a sore throat, I generally get some odd looks. But trust me, it works! Get a thick washcloth wet, wring it out thoroughly, and instruct your child to put part of it in their mouth, breathing whichever way is most comfortable (either mouth or nose). They will probably want to suck or chew on the washcloth, which is fine. The idea here is that you are delivering moisture to the throat the most direct way possible. In the morning, you will likely find the washcloth somewhere else in the bed or on the floor, but your child’s sore throat will feel much better!

Never underestimate the healing power of touch.
Photo by
David Castillo Dominici/Courtesy Free Digital Photos

Never underestimate the healing power of touch! If your child is home sick, try to forget about the other chores you could be doing and simply hold them, rub their back, rock them, read to them, sing to them, and lie down and take a nap with them. Of course you will do as much as you can to ease your child’s suffering, but if symptoms get significantly worse or it’s been a long time with no improvement, you may need to use other remedies or make a trip to the doctor’s office. Lastly, be sure to heed your intuition. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention.

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