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Self-care for kids

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A guide for parents and caregivers

When your child is sick, you feel bad too. While many kids with a cold or flu start to get better within a week, these viruses can last for up to 3 weeks. Find out how to ease their symptoms, including the safest medicine to give them. And remember to follow your doctor's advice and school policies by keeping them at home until they feel better and are fever-free.

Teach healthy hygiene

Have your children:

  • Wash their hands often and keep them away from their noses, eyes, and mouths. Give them hand sanitizers (wipes or gels with alcohol in them) to use when they can't wash.
  • Cover their noses and mouths with tissues when they cough or sneeze. They should throw used tissues in the trash afterwards. They can use their sleeves if they don't have tissues. If they do use their hands, they should wash them as soon as possible.

Feel-better basics

If your children have a cold or the flu, antibiotics won't help. Instead make sure they:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids
  • stay at home until they're fever-free for 24 hours and feeling well enough to go out

While you're taking care of sick kids, remember to follow these guidelines to help keep the rest of your household well.

Child sleepingMany children with a cold or flu feel better within a week, but some symptoms, like coughing, can last 3 weeks or longer. To relieve stuffy noses, sore throats, or other symptoms, use home remedies or over-the-counter medications. If your children aren't showing any signs of improvement after 2 weeks, contact their doctor.

Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines can be dangerous for young children. Do not give these medicines to children under 4 years of age. Some products are also not recommended for children under 6. Cough and cold medicines have not been proven to be effective for children under age 6.

Choose and use medicines wisely

To treat your children's symptoms safely, follow these important dos and don'ts:

Dos

  • Always read the Drug Facts label on all over-the-counter medicines and follow the dosing directions.
  • Only use products suitable for your children's ages.
  • Only give the medicine that targets your children's symptoms.
  • Use measuring spoons or cups that come with the medicine or those made especially for measuring drugs.

Don'ts

  • Don't give aspirin, or products containing aspirin, to anyone under 20 years old.
  • Don't give medicines containing antihistamines (Dimetapp, Benadryl) to your children to make them sleepy.
  • Never give your children two medicines at the same time that contain the same active ingredient.

Cool off a fever

Fevers are common when children have a cold or the flu because they're our bodies' normal response to infections.

So what works? Here are some ways to take the heat off if your children are uncomfortable:

  • Encourage your child to drink extra fluids or suck on frozen fruit bars (no sugar added).
  • Keep your children's rooms comfortably cool and dress them in light clothing (do not wrap in blankets).
  • You can give children acetaminophen (Tylenol) at any age, or ibuprofen (Advil) if they are older than 6 months. Check with your doctor before giving acetaminophen or ibuprofen to children under age 2.
  • Apply cool washcloths to the forehead and neck. Sponge the rest of the body with lukewarm (not cold) water. Sponging with cold water or ice can make a fever worse. Do not use rubbing alcohol.

What shouldn't you do?

  • Don't give aspirin to anyone under 20 years old to relieve a fever. It increases the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious illness.
  • Don't sponge or bathe your child in cold water, ice, or alcohol.

Settle the sniffles

  • Raise the head of your children's cribs or beds about 3 to 4 inches.
  • Use a rubber suction bulb to gently clean infants' clogged noses. Place 3 drops of warm water or saline nose drops in each nostril to soften the mucus. Wait 1 minute. Squeeze the air out of the suction bulb, then put it in the nostril, and remove the mucus.
  • Have your children breathe moist air to loosen congestion. Have your children sit in the bathroom to breathe in steam from a warm shower. Or fill a humidifier or vaporizer with plain water and have them breathe in the mist. Do not add medication to the water, and make sure you clean your machine thoroughly after each use.
  • Yellow or green mucus may not mean that your child has a bacterial infection. Learn more about antibiotics.

Calm a cough

  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer in your children's rooms. (See above for proper use.)
  • Give children herbal or decaffeinated tea with lemon and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of honey. (Do not give honey to babies younger than 1 year old.)

Soothe a sore throat

  • Give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) for pain.
  • Encourage gargling with warm salt water twice a day.
  • Frozen juice bars can be soothing for children over 4 years old.
  • Drink lots of clear fluids such as water and broth. 
  • You can give children over 6 years of age ice chips or hard candy to suck, but beware of choking.

Comfort food for sick children

It's normal for sick children to have poor appetites, so let them decide if they want to eat. Keep your children hydrated with fluids like water, juice, and broth, and offer children soft, easy-to-swallow foods, such as:

  • applesauce
  • oatmeal
  • Jell-O
  • mashed potatoes
  • yogurt
  • frozen juice bars

Keep kids at home

Keep your children home from school or day care if they are ill. Children can be contagious for up to 7 days or longer after they get sick.

In general, doctors recommend having children stay home:

  • if they require one-on-one attention or care
  • if they're not alert enough to play or learn
  • until their fever (100.4 degrees F or higher) is gone for at least 24 hours without using a fever-reducing medicine

If your child's school closes, make sure he or she doesn't spend time with other children from school. Children can spread the flu at the mall or each other's homes just as easily as at school.

Plan ahead

Be prepared in case your children get sick and need to stay home.

  • Have a supply of over-the-counter medicines, tissues, and related items.
  • If you cannot stay home with a sick child, have a backup planKaiser Permanente is not responsible for the content or policies of external Internet sites. for another adult who can care for your child.

Returning to school or day care

Your children can return to school or day care when:

  • their fever (100.4 degrees F or higher) is gone for at least 24 hours without using a fever-reducing medicine
  • they feel well enough to participate in normal activities

Before you send your kids back to school or day care, review the school's or provider's sick-day policies.

Source: Adapted from copyrighted material of The Permanente Medical Group, Inc.

Reviewed by: Randy Bergen, MD, August 2013

Additional Kaiser Permanente reviewers

© 2011 Kaiser Permanente

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