According to the C.S.Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health* at the University of Michigan, in the US, parents frequently recommend advice ranging from ‘vitamin C to keep the germs away’, through to ‘never go outside with wet hair’.
Despite little or no evidence suggesting these types of methods actually help people avoid catching or preventing a cold, more than half of parents have tried them with their kids.
Some 51% of parents gave their child an over-the-counter vitamin or supplement to prevent colds, even without evidence that they work, while 70% of parents also say they try to protect their child from catching a cold by following non-evidence-based "folklore" advice, such as preventing children from going outside with wet hair (52%) or encouraging them to spend more time indoors (48%). In contrast, some 23% of parents encouraged their child to spend more time outdoors ‘to prevent colds’.
Fortunately, almost all the parents polled (99%) say their approach to cold prevention also involves advocating strong personal hygiene, which science shows prevents spreading colds. These strategies include encouraging children to wash hands frequently, teaching children not to put their hands near their mouth or nose and discouraging children from sharing utensils or 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 Gary Freed, co-director of the poll and a paediatrician at Mott.
"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.”
There is no evidence that giving a child vitamin C, multivitamins or other products advertised to boost the immune system is effective in preventing the common cold. Freed notes that the effectiveness of supplements and vitamins do not need to be proven in order for them to be sold.
The folklore strategies, he adds, have likely been passed down from generation to generation and started before people knew that germs were actually the cause of illnesses like colds.
On the bright side, even more parents use cold prevention strategies that are supported by science. In addition to helping children practice good hygiene habits, 87% of parents keep children away from people who are already sick. Some 64% reported that they ask relatives who have colds not to hug or kiss their child, and 60% skip a play-date or activity if other children attending were ill.
Freed said: “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."