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If you want to help your children avoid colds this winter, it’s best to stick to proven methods, such as making sure they wash their hands often, instead of trying to boost their immunity with vitamins or relying on “folklore.”

That’s the takeaway from a national health poll that found that more than half of parents reported the questionable practice of giving their child vitamins or supplements to try to protect them from colds, which are caused by viruses.

On the other hand, nearly all parents in The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health said they promote good personal hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing, to try to keep their kids well.

“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 Dr. Gary Freed, a pediatrician who serves as co-director of the poll, which targeted parents with kids ages 5 to 12.

Ninety-nine percent of parents said they encourage their children to wash their hands frequently or to use hand sanitizer (70 percent). Other good hygiene practices included telling kids not to put their hands near their mouth or nose (94 percent) and to avoid sharing utensils or drinks with people (94 percent).

Many parents said they take steps to sanitize their child’s environment such as washing household surfaces and toys more frequently.

“We know that some viruses and bacteria can live on surfaces for even a couple of days,” said Dr. Jill Howell-Berg, a physician with Norton Children’s Medical Associates in Clarksville, Ind. So cleaning those items repeatedly “after they’ve been touched is a great idea.”

But the poll found that some parents are turning to vitamins and supplements that “may be heavily advertised and commonly used, but none have been independently shown to have any definitive effect on cold prevention,” Freed said in a news release.

The most common product was vitamin C (47 percent). Also, some parents said they give kids zinc (15 percent), Echinacea (11 percent) or products advertised to boost the immune system (25 percent).

Howell-Berg said she doesn’t promote vitamins and supplements for kids’ cold prevention but she encourages healthy eating habits, such as consuming vitamin C-rich oranges, “just for general health.”

Howell-Berg said she’s encountered people who are interested in elderberry and zinc, but she doesn’t feel that either has been studied well enough in kids for her to recommend them.

In the poll, 70 percent of parents said they’ve used “folklore strategies,” such as telling kids not to go outside with wet hair or encouraging them to spend more time indoors or outdoors to prevent colds.

“With regard to preventing the common cold, spending more time indoors or outdoors or not going outside with wet hair have not been shown to actually make a difference,” according to the Mott Poll Report.

But Howell-Berg noted that “if you are stressed out in other ways like not getting enough sleep, out in cold weather, not eating healthy, that may put you more at risk for not being able to recover or stave off an illness,” she said. When you have too many stressors on your body and your immune system, “it’s hard to stay healthy.”

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Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.