A kid in bed with a cold has an adult hand on her forehead checking for fever

To ward off the colds that always seem to spread through schools and daycares this time of year, parents use a variety of strategies—including many that aren’t backed up by science, according to new results from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan. 

The national poll surveyed 1,119 parents with at least one child between 5 and 12. Their responses, released today, show that while nearly all parents use at least one tested strategy like hand-washing to keep kids healthy, more than half also rely on outdated advice and supplements.

More on Cold and Flu

“The great news is that the majority of parents know and are practicing proven strategies to help decrease both the spread of colds and the risk of their own children catching colds,” says Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics at University of Michigan and C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and co-director of the poll. “However, we also found that plenty of well-meaning parents are still using methods that are not proven to help keep kids healthy.” 

Myths Won't Keep Colds Away

The poll found that 71 percent of parents surveyed follow what the researchers call folklore advice—such as not letting kids go outside with wet hair, or encouraging them to play inside more when it’s cold outside.

But these ideas come from a time before we learned that germs—not wet heads or cold weather—are what cause colds.

“Colds are more common in winter, so people made the assumption that being cold somehow caused colds or made you more susceptible to catching them,” says Elizabeth Meade, M.D., chief of pediatrics at Swedish Medical Center, Seattle, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But it’s not physiologically possible to get sick just from being cold.”

Ironically, the real reason why colds are more common in the winter is that we’re spending more time indoors, which gives us more opportunities to pick up germs from others in tight spaces.

Just over half of the parents surveyed also used supplements—such as vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea—in an effort to boost their children’s immune systems. “But none of these products have been proven effective at preventing colds,” says Freed. “They are very heavily marketed, but they have not been shown to have any definitive effect on cold prevention.”

Experts also caution that supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration before they hit the shelves.

“You don’t know exactly how much you’re getting of the active ingredient or if there are any adulterants that may be mixed into the product,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.  

Proven Strategies to Stay Healthy

The instinct to do everything possible to keep kids healthy makes sense: Children under 6 get an average of six to eight colds a year, according to UpToDate, an online decision-making tool for doctors. Even older kids tend to get more annual colds than adults, who average two to four each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the new poll reveals that while unproven strategies remain popular, parents are also doing a lot right. Ninety-nine percent of parents focus on personal hygiene practices to ward off colds—a proven way to help prevent the spread of germs.

While nothing is a guarantee against getting sick, there are several strategies that experts agree will increase the chances of staying healthy during cold season: 

  • Wash hands frequently. “The number one thing you can do prevent the spread of germs is to wash hands often and do it correctly,” says Meade. Teach your kids that proper hand-washing technique means using soap and water, and scrubbing for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). And skip the antibacterial soap.
  • Sanitize toys and household surfaces. Germs can live on surfaces for hours or even sometimes days. So if someone in your house is sick, clean frequently touched surfaces (such as doorknobs, light switches, faucets) several times a day.
  • Steer clear of people who are sick. Eighty-seven percent of the parents surveyed in the new poll said they make an effort to keep their children away from others who are sick, and 60 percent said they would skip a play date if the other child was sick. That’s a smart strategy for cold prevention, according to Schaffner. “Transmission of cold viruses comes mostly through close personal contact,” he says.
  • Don’t share food or drinks. When kids grab a handful of food from a shared bag or bowl, put their hands to their mouths and then back into the shared food, it gives germs an easy route to travel. Make sure children each have their own serving of snacks and don’t sip out of each others' cups or bottles.
  • Keep hands out of mouths and noses. “Germs get into your system via mucous membranes,” says Meade. The less your kids put their fingers in their mouths or noses, the less opportunity germs have to invade.
  • Stick to healthy habits. During cold season it’s more important than ever to enforce healthy habits—such as eating well and getting plenty of sleep. “When kids get run down they are more susceptible to illness,” says Meade.