Childhood Diseases

Updated 16 March 2015

The science of childhood remedies

Your mom's favourite treatments for everyday ailments probably have some proven benefits.


When you were sick as a kid, what was your mom’s go-to comfort trick? Turns out some of your favorite nostalgic remedies have research-proven benefits. Here, we’ll discuss which ones really work -- and which ones miss the mark.

Mom’s Remedy: Chicken Soup
The Reality: Chicken noodle soup just might be the perfect recipe for cold relief: A recent University of Nebraska Medical Center study found that this time-held favorite is anti-inflammatory and can actually help ease illness. When researchers tested homemade and several premade chicken soups, they found that all varieties were effective in reducing symptoms, like cough and congestion. Here’s the kicker: Broth alone wasn’t effective, and it didn’t matter whether there were veggies or not as long as the soup contained both chicken and noodles. Researchers suspect that the combo improves hydration, offers solid nutrition and has a strong placebo effect on coughs.

“I recommend drinking warm liquids and eating hot soup for all of my sick patients,” says Dr. Clement Bottino, a fellow in academic pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston. During a cold, blood vessels get leaky, causing dehydration, he explains. The water provides fluid, the salt prevents liquids from escaping and the warmth relaxes the vessels to improve circulation. “This is the same idea as when we give IV fluids to patients in the hospital,” he says. “The saline solution is made of warm water and salt, just like chicken soup.”

Mom’s Remedy: Orange Juice
The Reality: Moms are always pushing OJ, and for good reason: Oranges are high in vitamin C, an antioxidant your body uses to help repair its tissues. A 2007 analysis of results from 30 clinical trials found that vitamin C didn’t prevent colds, but it slightly reduced the severity and length of symptoms.

Even so, experts agree that the jury’s still out on whether the vitamin is effective in preventing or ending colds. In fact, doctors don’t recommend doling out vitamin C supplements to kids, even when they’re sick. “The thing with vitamin C is that your body excretes what it doesn’t need,” explains Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog. “So there’s no evidence if that a supplement will provide any additional benefits.”

For a revved-up immune system, Swanson advises opting for foods that are high in the vitamin and in other nutrients, such as oranges, strawberries and tomatoes. “The fiber in whole fruits also slows the absorption of sugar,” adds Bottino. “And that’s better for your health in general.”

Mom’s Remedy: Ginger Ale
The Reality: Research shows that ginger root is effective for treating morning sickness and nausea post-surgery. But studies on ginger ale for flu symptoms are inconclusive, and the spicy root shouldn’t be given to children younger than 2 years of age. “Most ginger ales don’t contain that much natural ginger,” says Swanson. “And you get 200 calories from the sugar.”

Instead of serving up this particular fizzy drink, provide plenty of clear liquids, like electrolyte drinks that contain the right balance of sugar and salt, to help kids recover.

Mom’s Remedy: A Steamy Bath
The Reality: Numerous studies have shown that this nighttime ritual is an effective cold treatment: Steam moistens nasal passages and eases congestion. “It’s the same theory as when our grandparents used to boil water, put a cloth over the pot and have us stand over it,” says Dr. Heather Lubell, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. “It doesn’t make the cold go away, but it does lessen symptoms in the short term.”

What’s more, a Cornell University study found that a drop in core body temperature is a signal that helps you to fall asleep faster and reach deep sleep more easily. Because a bath mimics this drop in temperature, a pre-bedtime soak tells your child’s body it’s time to doze off. Lubell recommends also placing a humidifier in your child’s room to safely relieve stuffiness and improve breathing -- especially in the wee hours, when coughs are more likely to pop up.

Mom’s Remedy: Tea With Lemon and Honey
The Reality: The same theory for chicken soup holds true for a cup of hot tea: Heat increases blood flow, which may speed healing, says Bottino. More importantly, since mucus production can make you dehydrated, drinking lots of fluids -- especially clear ones like tea -- is key.

Besides sweetening the drink, honey may help curb your child’s hacking. According to a study in the journal Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 2 teaspoons of the sticky stuff before bed helped reduce coughs. Although you should never give honey to kids younger than 2 years of age, it may be a tool in addition to OTC meds to calm a cough.

Tea’s also high in immune-boosting antioxidants, and a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that blood cells in tea drinkers responded five times faster to bacteria and virus infections than their coffee-sipping counterparts. Is your child not a fan of English breakfast tea or Earl Grey? Brew a mug of hot water with lemon and honey instead.

Mom’s Remedy: Bundling Up
The Reality: While it may have felt comforting when your mom piled on a mound of blankets, you should never do the same with your kids. Bundling up can cause a fever to rise.

Contrary to popular belief, that extra layer won’t improve immunity: A study in the journal Family Practice showed that feeling chilly doesn’t increase your chances of getting sick. The best move: Keep your child comfortable with a light layer of clothes and a blanket.

Mom’s Remedy: Bed Rest
The Reality: It’s no wonder that you feel wiped out when you’re sick. That’s your body’s way of telling you that you need to log more z’s for your immune system. According to a 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, people who logged less than seven hours of sleep a night were nearly three times as likely to catch a cold than those who got eight or more hours.

“Sleep is the most important thing you can do to fight off an infection,” says Bottino. During shut-eye, he says, your body literally renews itself. To help your child snooze soundly, get symptoms like coughing under control first; a humidifier and over-the-counter medications can help him or her nod off quickly.

Read more:

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Prof Eugene Weinberg worked in the Paediatrics Department of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital for many years. He is presently a paediatric allergist at the Allergy Diagnostic Unit of the UCT Lung Institute in Mowbray.

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