Parents Use Sound, Unsound Tactics to Prevent Illness


Parents hoping to spare their children from colds and the flu follow scientific recommendations in high numbers, but they are also susceptible to unscientific “folklore.”

With cold and flu season in full swing, a new poll found that most parents are following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice for preventing the spread of germs.

There’s just one caveat—many parents are also following illness-prevention strategies that have absolutely no basis in science.

The University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital recently polled a national sample of parents of children ages 5-12. They found virtually all parents—99%—encourage handwashing and personal hygiene as a way to prevent the spread of illness. Additionally, 87% of respondents said they avoid people who are sick and encourage their children to do the same and 84% said they work to sanitize their homes by washing household surfaces more frequently than usual and in some cases by washing their children’s toys more often.

"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," said Gary Freed, MD, MPH, a Mott pediatrician and co-director of the poll, in a press release.

Unfortunately, 7 in 10 parents also admitted to following a “folklore” strategy, adopting tactics that are commonly employed but which have little or no scientific basis.

A majority of parents—52%—said they tell their children not to go outside with wet hair because of the incorrect belief that it will cause them to get sick. Ironically, while 48% of parents tell their children to spend less time outdoors to avoid getting a cold, 23% of parents give the opposite advice, telling their children to spend more time outdoors in order to stay healthy.

Freed noted that a lot of these strategies predate the modern medical era, stemming from a time before we understood the role of germs in spreading disease.

However, some unscientific “strategies” also come as a result of aggressive advertising. The poll found that 51% of parents give their children vitamins or supplements in hopes of avoiding illness. These products are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Freed said there is no scientific proof that they work.

“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,” he said.

Freed said school-aged children get an average of 3 to 6 colds per year, but he said scientifically backed strategies can help reduce that number.

“It's important for parents to understand which cold prevention strategies are evidence-based,” he said. “While some methods are very effective in preventing children from catching the cold, others have not been shown to actually make any difference."

As for influenza, the CDC recommends similar strategies like washing hands and avoiding sick people. However, the number one prevention strategy is to get a flu vaccine shot.

Other strategies parents told pollsters they utilize included asking sick relatives not to hug or kiss their children (64%) and skipping a playdate if they knew a sick child would be in attendance (60%). In fact, 31% of parents said they avoid playgrounds altogether during cold season in order to decrease their child’s chance of getting sick.

The poll results were released Jan. 21 and can be viewed online at the Mott Poll’s website.

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