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Expert Tips from Just Ask Children's


Every parent is the expert on their own kid, but sometimes we can all use a little help. We pose your questions to the experts at Children’s Hospital Colorado, highlighting a popular topic every month.

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This month's topic: Busting health myths 

Parenting is uncertain enough without having to wade through a tide of misinformation. Our panel of experts cut through the rumors about controversial health topics to separate myth from fact.

1. Do artificial colors or sugar cause ADHD or hyperactivity?

Anyone who’s ever fed a kid an ice-cream cone has witnessed the wind-up toy effect: Sugar sets kids careening into everything in sight. Sugars and carbohydrates cause a fast spike in blood sugar because they’re easy to digest, and that can trigger an adrenaline response. It’s a temporary effect. What goes up must come down, and a sugared-up kid in action will inevitably crash. There is no evidence, however, of a link between sugar and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a behavioral disorder that affects about 10% of school-age children.

The jury’s still out on the link between artificial coloring and hyperactivity. A 2007 study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency found some connection, but none strong enough to satisfy the United States’ Food and Drug Administration, which reviewed that study and determined the evidence was insufficient to draw any conclusion, and that more research was needed.

Although neither sugar nor artificial food colorings have any proven link to ADHD, they’re not exactly what you’d call “good for you,” either. Foods with added sugar aren’t recommended at all for kids under age 2, and it’s a good idea to limit sugar intake for kids of any age and eat fruit instead. 

Of course, sometimes fruit just isn’t practical — like, say, for Trick-Or-Treating. This Halloween, consider handing out non-food items like stickers or bubbles. The neighborhood kids will thank you later (or at least their dentists will).

Source: Jill Kaar, PhD, Nutrition

2. Can a high fever cause brain damage? How high a fever is too high? What should I do to treat a fever?

Only extreme fevers of 108 degrees and above can cause brain damage, and fevers that high are very rare. The vast majority of fevers fall somewhere between 100 and 104 degrees and actually help fight off illness and infection by making the body a less hospitable place for germs. As long as they resolve within two or three days and your child doesn’t seem excessively lethargic or dehydrated, most children with a fever won’t need medical attention. One important exception: An infant under 3 months of age with a temperature above 100.4 degrees needs to go to an emergency department immediately. Even a mild fever in very young infants can be a sign of a serious medical condition.

Not all fevers need treatment. A fever is the body’s way of fighting off infection, and even a relatively high one doesn’t necessarily need to be treated. Far more important than the number on the thermometer is your child’s level of comfort. Make sure your child is getting enough fluids, as fever can lead to dehydration. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also ease symptoms, usually reducing the fever by a few degrees, but they aren’t necessary, except to ease discomfort. Avoid aspirin, which has been linked to a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome. A lukewarm bath can also be helpful, but never treat a fever with a very cold bath, because fever causes discomfort, and an icy cold bath makes that main problem worse.

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

3. Is an ear infection contagious? Does it always need antibiotics?

Ear infections happen when the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose, gets blocked, usually as the result of a cold. Blockage causes the tube to fill with fluid, and if that fluid gets infected, things can get pretty painful. Ear infections themselves are not at all contagious and can’t be spread – however, the colds that often lead to ear infections are very contagious.

Ear infections may be viral or bacterial, and since there’s no way to easily access fluid in the middle ear behind the eardrum, it’s difficult even for a medical professional to tell which is which. If you suspect your child has an ear infection – and 90% of kids will have one at some point, 20% of kids frequently – the best thing to do is pay a visit to your doctor and let her recommend the most appropriate course of treatment.

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

4. Can a child “grow out” of a psychiatric disorder?

The short answer is “no,” although with early intervention and treatment, many children and adolescents can learn to manage and even overcome their symptoms.

Most psychiatric disorders – such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and ADHD – manifest symptoms before age 14, and those symptoms without treatment tend to worsen in adulthood. Children typically respond to treatment better and more quickly than adults, so seeking treatment early on is the best way toward a positive outcome.

Other difficult behaviors common in young children, such as noncompliance, hyperactivity, sleep resistance and trouble at school, can affect a child’s potential success. Many children benefit from a brief professional intervention, which can improve the parent-child relationship and decrease the likelihood of needing more extensive treatment later on.

Not all behaviors need treatment. Symptoms of a psychiatric disorder often include changes in sleep patterns, irritability, shifts in social habits, changes in appearance or hygiene, changes in weight or appetite, and use of alcohol or drugs. Of course, many of these behaviors are just symptoms of being a teen.

How to tell the difference? One good gauge is the Stoplight Approach. Talk to your child. Chances are, they may just be reacting to some external stress or pressure. Keep your lines of communication open, and the issue may resolve itself. If symptoms are very serious or persist over time, however, or your child talks about self-harm or harming others, contact a mental health professional.

Source: Jennifer Kazmerski, PhD, Psychiatry and Behavioral Services

5. Does green snot always mean infection?

Contrary to popular belief, green or yellow in the phlegm is not the color of bacteria; rather, it’s the effect of a greenish-colored enzyme produced by white blood cells, which, in large numbers, can give your child’s mucus that delightful hue. Greenish mucus, then, is an indication of the immune system kicking into high gear, and a ramped-up immune system could indicate some kind of infection, whether viral or bacterial.

Not all infections produce the same effect, however, and a bad infection can easily come with snot that’s crystal clear. Look for a collection of symptoms – such as coughing, fever, congestion and sinus pressure – rather than just one.

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

6. How does lice spread? Are home remedies effective?

Contrary to popular belief, lice can’t jump. They aren’t even very fast at crawling. In fact, it’s surprisingly hard to pass lice from one person to another without sustained hair-to-hair contact, such as in living situations and at sleepovers. Lice like to stay in the hair, away from light, and their eggs (called “nits”) stick firmly to the root of the hair. It’s pretty unusual to pass the bugs themselves by sharing hats or combs, and since they’re stuck to the hair, it’s not possible to spread nits.

Home remedies can sometimes be effective, although they’re unproven. Some studies have suggested that natural plant oils, such as tea tree oil and anise oil, have toxic effects on lice, and basic household oils, such as olive oil and butter, can have the effect of suffocating nits and lice if applied thickly to the hair and left under a shower cap overnight. Some people even use mayonnaise, although, frankly, that just sounds kind of gross. 

Again, though, none of these methods have been conclusively shown to work. Lice and nits can’t survive on their own, so pesticides are unnecessary, ineffective and potentially dangerous. 

The most telling sign of lice is the nits, which may look like sand or dandruff but, since they’re attached to the hair, won’t shake out. Your best bet is over-the-counter lice shampoo; if that doesn’t work, ask your pediatrician.

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

7. Is ingesting a foreign object always an emergency?

Kids swallow stuff, and a lot of it — like small, plastic toy pieces or coins — can pass easily through the intestines and will work its way out in the child’s stool without a problem. As a general rule, though, if your child swallows something that is not food, it’s a good idea to seek medical help. 

If the object in question is interfering with the child’s breathing, try to dislodge it (with the Heimlich maneuver), go to the nearest emergency department as quickly as possible or call 911. Laundry pods and button batteries are potentially life-threatening if swallowed and should be kept out of reach; if you suspect your child has swallowed either of these items, head to the nearest emergency department immediately. 

The list of things kids might swallow is, frankly, pretty endless. When in doubt, your local poison control center can tell you more. 

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

8. Are home remedies an effective treatment for burns?

The only effective home remedy for burns is immediate soaking in cold water. Avoid ice, though, as it could delay healing. Never apply grease, butter or powder to a burn, as these “remedies” actually make the problem worse. Try not to rub a burn, which may increase blistering.

For a mild burn, which looks a lot like a sunburn, simply running it under cold water will probably do the trick. For a worse or larger burn, like one that produces blistering or charring, or one that involves the face, hands, feet or joints, apply cold water and try to remove any clothing around the burn, and seek immediate medical attention. Left untreated, large burns can lead to scarring, dehydration and infection.

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

9. Is whiskey on the gums really good for teething pain? What about other remedies, like homeopathic drops or painkilling gels?

Short answer: no. As it turns out, the symptoms often associated with teething in infants, such as fussiness, high temperature and diarrhea, don’t necessarily indicate that a tooth is about to emerge. New teeth don’t actually “cut” through the gum, as commonly believed; rather, the gum restructures and moves out of the way, and new research increasingly shows that infants probably don’t experience much from teething beyond mild discomfort. After all, children getting a second set of teeth don’t experience any pain at all. Infants get sick a lot, and it’s likely that their teething symptoms may in fact be the symptoms of something else entirely.

So numbing the gums, even with topical acetaminophen gels, probably won’t do much to curb those symptoms. Whiskey is not a numbing agent, and would have no effect at all. Other herbal or homeopathic remedies have not been proven effective. 

The best home remedy for teething is probably a teething ring cooled in the fridge (not the freezer), if only for its power to distract your baby by being a new, interesting sensation in the mouth.

Source: Leslie Austin, MD, Emergency Medicine

10. Does my child really need to be vaccinated? All the other kids are vaccinated, and most of those diseases no longer exist! And what about autism?

Let’s be clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. The supposed link between vaccination and autism was popularized by a 1998 study that has since been widely and repeatedly discredited, and whose primary author is no longer licensed to practice medicine. The rumor is simply untrue. 

The truth is, vaccines are safe. In fact, vaccines are one of the safest, most proven medical interventions available. Vaccination’s success at preventing disease is unmatched, and continual testing reveals that there is very little risk.  Some vaccines do cause mild discomfort and even, in some cases, up to a few days of feeling pretty run down, but getting the vaccination is a lot better than getting the disease it prevents. 

Everyone needs vaccines. Measles, mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough: all devastating diseases that were common before the invention of vaccines and, as a result of standardized vaccination, have nearly disappeared in the United States. Measles had been considered eliminated in the U.S. since 2000, but as the nationwide outbreak of measles last year in California shows, the disease may be gone, but it’s never far away. For your own protection and for the protection of children too young for certain vaccines, getting vaccinated according to your doctor’s recommendations is the right choice.

Scheduled vaccines are the safest way to go. A more recent speculation holds that current vaccine schedules are somehow “too much, too soon” to be safe for children. This speculation has little basis in fact. In reality, vaccine schedules are recommended by a panel of experts that convenes each year to evaluate and reassess recommendations. They are based on the most recent scientific data available, and are approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to disease; the best course is to get them vaccinated as soon as safely possible.

Source: Sean O’Leary, MD, Infectious Diseases