Watch CBS News

Vitamin C? No wet hair outside? What actually works to prevent kids' colds

Cold-fighting strategies not based in science
Parents use cold-fighting strategies not based in science, researchers say 01:02

Sniffles and sneezes are hard for kids to avoid this time of year. While parents do their best to prevent children from getting sick, some of the precautions they take may not be helping.

In fact, more than half of parents have tried methods to prevent common colds that have little or no scientific evidence behind them, according to new research from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan.

"Wintertime colds are common among children, often making them feel uncomfortable and causing them to miss school or other activities," the researchers write. "While many parents strive to prevent their child from catching a cold, not all parents understand which strategies are evidence-based and will make a difference in cold prevention."

Children get on average three to six colds per year, with some lasting as long as two weeks. To assess how much parents know about cold prevention, researchers surveyed more than 1,100 parents from across the United States.

"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," Dr. Gary Freed, co-director of the poll and a pediatrician at Mott, said in a statement.

However, 71 percent of parents also say they try non-evidence-based strategies the researchers call "folklore" advice.

What works to prevent a cold

Ninety-nine percent of parents surveyed said their approach to cold prevention involves strong personal hygiene. This is encouraging, experts say, because this is the best way to prevent getting sick.

Colds are spread from when mucous droplets from an infected person's nose or mouth enter another person's body. This can happen either through direct contact or through the air from a sneeze or cough. Good hygiene can help kill cold germs before they can enter the bodies of healthy people.

"Frequent and proper hand hygiene, either by washing with soap and water or alcohol cleansers, are the best practice to minimize the risk of catching a cold," Dr. Stan Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president at Texas Children's Pediatrics and Texas Children's Urgent Care, told CBS News. "Avoiding close contact with individuals with active respiratory symptoms is also considered a way to lessen the risk."

Symptoms parents shouldn't ignore 01:25

Cold germs can also live on surfaces, such as door handles, faucets, countertops, phones and toys. Someone could get infected by touching these contaminated objects and then touching their mouth or face.

Teaching children not to put their hands near their mouth or nose and discouraging children from sharing utensils or drinks with others are also effective strategies for helping them avoid illness.

What doesn't work

The researchers found 51 percent of parents say they give their children an over-the-counter vitamin or supplement to prevent colds. However, independent scientific evidence doesn't back up the claims that vitamin C, multivitamins, or other supplements marketed to boost the immune system actually prevent colds.

"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," Freed said.

He noted that supplements and vitamins are not required to prove their effectiveness in order to be sold.

"Most vitamins will not hurt children, but normally healthy children do not need them," Freed told CBS News. "Fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K should not be taken in large quantities as they can build up in the body and be potentially harmful. Water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C are not dangerous in large quantities, just not helpful."

Additionally, 7 out of 10 parents said they follow non-evidence-based "folklore" advice about children's health. That includes making sure kids don't go outside with wet hair, or encouraging them to spend more time indoors to prevent colds.

These folklore strategies, the researchers say, have likely been passed down from generation to generation and began long before people knew that germs were actually what caused colds. However, these practices have not been shown to actually make a difference.

Freed suggests that the money and time spent on unproven products and techniques could be redirected to other strategies that actually do work.

"The best strategy is for parents to focus their preventive efforts on decreasing the spread of the cold viruses through strong attention to hand washing and avoiding direct contact of people with colds," the report concludes.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.