ANN ARBOR, Mich. — You’ve likely heard of and maybe even tried several cold remedies that have no real basis in science. A few examples: avoiding the outdoors with wet hair, taking Vitamin C supplements and other nutrients, and staying indoors as much as possible to prevent colds. Despite none of these remedies being proven methods to curb the sniffles, a national poll shows more than half of parents still turn to them anyway when it comes to treating their kids.
In all, 51% of parents who took part in the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan say they give their child over-the-counter vitamins or supplements to help prevent colds. Among other supplements besides vitamin C, the poll found 15% of parents use zinc, and 11% prefer Echinacea. A quarter of those surveyed give their children products that claim to fight colds by boosting the immune system.
The poll also showed that a whopping 71% use what the researchers call “folklore” advice, such as avoiding cold weather with wet hair, or consuming garlic and onions.
And while those methods are as uncertain as any other old wives’ tale, thankfully the poll showed that 99% of the 2,007 parents surveyed encourage better personal hygiene when their child has a cold, which is proven to suppress the spread of colds. Such strategies for keeping the common upper respiratory infection at bay include having children avoid touching their noses or mouths, washing their hands frequently, and forbidding them from sharing food and drinks with others.
“The positive news is that the majority of parents do follow evidence-based recommendations to avoid catching or spreading the common cold and other illnesses,” says Dr. Gary Freed, co-director of the poll and a pediatrician at Mott, in a media release. “However, many parents are also using supplements and vitamins not proven to be effective in preventing colds and that are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These are products that may be heavily advertised and commonly used but none have been independently shown to have any definitive effect on cold prevention.”
The survey found that school-aged children tend to experience three to six colds per year, with some cases lasting as long as two weeks.
Because cold viruses are spread through person-to-person contact, it’s no surprise that 3 in 5 parents would cancel a playdate or activity with other children if one of them had a runny nose, cough, or other cold symptoms. In fact, 3 in 10 parents admit they avoid the playground entirely during cold season.
Even if there’s no fever, keeping sniffling children home from school or planned activities with others may be best: The most common way colds spread are from mucus droplets from the mouth and nose passing onto a new individual via direct contact — or through the air in sneezes and coughs. If they are around others, washing their hands frequently is the best way to avoid spreading their germs.
“When children are sick with a cold, it affects the whole family,” Freed says. “It’s important for parents to understand which cold prevention strategies are evidence-based. While some methods are very effective in preventing children from catching the cold, others have not been shown to actually make any difference.”