By Tonia Buzzolini*
As every parent knows, kids and sniffles go together like toast and Vegemite (and can be just as messy!).
But, having to cope with a sniffling, miserable child for hours on end during a long flight is no-one’s idea of family fun. Not to mention the very real prospect of upsetting fellow passengers.
The solution (literally) is saline solution.
These over-the-counter preparations come in two forms – drops or spray mist – and are simply sodium chloride (common salt) in sterile water.
Very small kids can’t blow their nose. A couple of drops or a squirt or two of saline loosens mucous and allows it to flow.
Three benefits of packing saline for travel
The main benefits of enlisting saline on dam-busting duties are:
- Clearing the nasal passages so they can do their job of letting oxygen flow freely.
- Even more importantly, reducing the risk of ear and sinus infections by eliminating mucous so it can’t act as a culture medium in which organisms can multiply.
No mucous = no culture. Happy child = happy adults.
In fact, there’s a third benefit to carrying a small plastic bottle of saline in your carry-on bag. This one’s at the other end of the snotty spectrum.
We catch colds, flu and other respiratory diseases by breathing in the respective viruses. Colds are caused by rhinoviruses, which are usually less severe than flu viruses.
The structure of the human nose actually helps to prevent virus infections. Our nasal membranes and hairs trap most of these organisms before they can reach the throat or lungs and multiply. (Yes, that’s why those hairs are in your nose – well, one reason anyway.)
Moisture-robbing air in plane cabins
But, for the membranes and hairs to perform this very important role effectively they need to be moist.
For parents travelling with kids, the problem is that aircraft cabins have exactly the opposite effect: the dry, air-conditioned air that is pumped into the cabin dries out our nasal passages.
Saline to the rescue: It restores the moisture balance.
(I should add that kids are not any more susceptible to respiratory infections than adults, but it’s well-established that flu can hit young children harder than healthy adults. People with chronic medical conditions and the elderly are also likely to have more severe illness and these 3 groups make up most of the 18,000 hospital admissions and 2500 deaths linked to influenza in Australia each year.)
A cheap simple solution - for all travellers
Of course, a squirt of saline works just as well for adults with a blocked or dry nose. Several drops or sprays into each nostril every few hours or so will usually do the trick.
This simple solution is cheap and there are no known side effects.
Saline drops or nasal spray preparations are available in 3 strengths from pharmacies. They include hypertonic (3% sodium chloride or sea water), isotonic (0.9% sodium chloride), and hypotonic (0.65% sodium chloride). Isotonic sprays are most commonly recommended for clearing nasal mucous in infants and young children.
Check the pack or ask the chemist to ensure your drops or spray contains only saline. Sprays that include plant-derived additives like ginger and tea-tree oil are available, but there have been no studies confirming if they actually alleviate the symptoms of a cold.
A running nose rarely lasts long. But, the situation becomes more problematic on a holiday if the sniffles are due to a cold or, worse, the flu.
Flu vaccine just the shot, but cold medicines ineffective
Over-the-counter cold medicine may include decongestants, antihistamines and cough suppressants, which are of no proven benefit and may even cause side effects. They should not be used in kids with colds – especially those under 4 – and nor should antibiotics.
To treat a cold, liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen can help ease a fever and discomfort, but never give aspirin to children under 16.
Most kids recover from a bout of flu within 7 days without treatment. Bed rest and lots of fluids are recommended, along with paracetamol for pain or discomfort (again, no aspirin – it can have serious side effects).
The chances of getting the flu are greatly reduced by getting the seasonal flu vaccine. If your family was immunised against flu this year, the vaccine’s protection lasts for up to 12 months.
If you weren’t vaccinated and you are heading into the northern hemisphere winter later this year or early next year (or you’ll be holidaying in a tropical country, where flu circulates year round) the vaccine will available in Australia until December and will provide some protection against the next group of flu strains in circulation.
However, if you’re planning an extended stay overseas, it’s definitely worth being vaccinated with the 2015-16 northern flu vaccine as soon as possible after you arrive at your destination.
* A registered nurse with internationally recognised qualifications and extensive experience in travel medicine, Tonia Buzzolini is also the National Operations Manager of Travelvax Australia.
Planning an overseas trip? Call Travelvax Australia’s obligation-free travel health advisory service on 1300 360 164 (toll-free for landlines) for expert advice or to book a pre-travel medical consultation at your nearest Travelvax clinic.