Misinformation on RSV, flu spread online: What parents need to know

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(NEW YORK) -- As parents and caregivers try to cope with the spread of flu, RSV and COVID-19 in what health experts are calling a "tripledemic," some may look online for treatment and prevention tips.

However, earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory warning people about fraudulent flu products sold online and in retail stores, saying the "unproven" products "claim to prevent, mitigate, treat, or cure the flu" – even though they have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safety and effectiveness.

On Instagram alone, the hashtags #rsv and #flu have been shared over 1.5 million times.

Some social media posts share information about symptoms of both viruses, while others contain information about home remedies, which doctors warn can be dangerous.

"What I worry about is that some parents may rely on these unproven treatments, and then this can actually lead to a delay in care when children need it," said Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health in Palo Alto, California, and an ABC News medical contributor. "For example, every cold symptom is not necessarily because of a virus that's going to treat itself on its own."

Patel, the father of a 2-year-old daughter, continued, "Your child may actually have something such as an ear infection, or a strep throat, and if those remain untreated, they can lead to some really bad consequences."

Adding to parents' confusion, according to Patel, is that as doctors' offices and hospitals remain busy during the tripledemic, social media may seem like the fastest way to seek information. In addition, the medical advice for viral illnesses may be to let them take their course, which can lead parents to try to find home remedies.

"Parents are seeing these headlines about overfull hospitals and ERs, so parents are scared," said Patel. "I feel the same thing," he added.

Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician at Columbia University in New York and the mother of a 14-month-old son, said she worries about how often people may take advice from people they follow on social media who are not medical professionals.

"Sometimes we follow accounts for their lifestyle advice and for decorations, or how to dress, how to dress our kids and fun activities," said Bracho-Sanchez. "Those accounts are not the ones that we want to go to when we're looking for health information."

Here are tips from Bracho-Sanchez and Patel to help parents navigate the flood of health information online around flu, RSV and more:

1. Go to trusted medical sources online.

When parents and caregivers see health tips online, Bracho-Sanchez says there are three questions they should ask themselves: Does this person have the credentials to be recommending this? Could this potentially be dangerous to my child? Should I talk to my pediatrician first before doing some of these things that are being recommended?

The top step to take though, according to Bracho-Sanchez, is to only seek medical information from certified medical providers.

"When you want health information tips on keeping your kids safe, go to the pediatricians, go to verified and credited accounts of people who are actual health care professionals that are giving you advice from a place of knowledge about some of these subjects," she said.

Patel recommends always searching for the source of a social media video or post before taking in the information.

"Any time you see a Facebook, TikTok or Instagram post that is claiming to have a treatment for a common cold or a cure, scroll to the bottom and look to see what the source of that information is," he said. "And go backwards and be an internet sleuth, and make sure it's legit."

2. Know the home remedies that are pediatrician-approved.

Overall, the best way to boost your child's immune system is simply with good hydration, nutrition and sleep, Patel noted.

There are also things parents can do to help make sure their child is as comfortable as can be when battling a viral illness like RSV or the flu, according to both Patel and Bracho-Sanchez.

Both doctors said items like humidifiers, saline nasal sprays and nasal suctioning tools are all great to have on hand at home.

For children over the age of 1, a small dose of honey, around one teaspoon, can help ease a child's cough, according to Patel and Bracho-Sanchez.

Hydration is also very important when kids are sick.

"When my daughter is sick, we make sure that she's still eating and drinking consistently, even if it's small amounts at a time," said Patel.

3. Be wary of suggested home remedies that aren't proven.

"Some things that I personally have seen and heard of from social media platforms are home remedies such as onion water, or making immune-boosting smoothies, or even cutting up garlic cloves and placing them on children's feet, inside their ear or on their chest to 'draw out toxins,'" said Patel. "There is no evidence that any of this actually works."

Patel said he warns parents to be wary of remedies that claim to be safe because they are "all natural."

"Some treatments that may be homeopathic or natural are not necessarily safe," he said. "They can actually interact with certain medications or have bad consequences for some children."

Another red flag, according to Patel, is a claim that a product or treatment can cure RSV.

"There is no actual proven RSV cure," he said. "We just have different forms of supportive care and treatment in some particular situations. There's nothing you can buy or make that is going to magically cure your child of RSV in one day."

4. Remember that your child is not every child.

Both Patel and Bracho-Sanchez stressed the importance of parents knowing that what may have helped one child, may not necessarily be the most effective or safest treatment for their own child.

"Your child may have asthma or a heart condition or allergies, and what works for somebody else's child may not be enough for your child," said Bracho-Sanchez. "You know your child best. Trust yourself and trust your doctor."

Patel also said it's important for parents to seek medical attention when necessary for a child so there is not a delay in the correct treatment.

"Coughing, sneezing, congestion, itchy eyes, all those symptoms may not be from the same cause as somebody else's child," said Patel. "What might be RSV in one kid, could be influenza in another or COVID-19 in another or a sinus infection in another child, and treatment may differ."

Symptoms that would call for urgent medical care include changes in their mental status like confusion or sleepiness, respiratory distress like gasping for air and difficulty breathing and signs of dehydration like not making tears when they cry or making less than one wet diaper every eight hours, according to Patel.

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