Living in Germany Parenting

German Pediatricians and the Common Cold

In the small Latvian village where I grew up people were oftentimes making fun of the old village doctor’s favorite treatment for most common ailments: drinking lots of tea and staying in bed. Myself among those who would smile at his advice, it’s probably a little ironic that I now live in a country where the usual way of dealing with seasonal colds is exactly that: staying at home and keeping hydrated.

While an American or a Brit would take a horse dose of paracetamol or Tylenol and bravely suffer through their daily appointments, a German who shows up for work with a bad cold is likely to be sent home by his boss before someone else in the office catches it. Here in Germany going to your doctor with a case of the common cold will usually result in zero prescription medicines. Instead, you will get written sick for a few days and be told to take it easy and drink lots of tea.

Knowing this, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that German pediatricians take a very similar approach to dealing with colds and light fevers in babies and toddlers.

I vividly remember the first time I brought Birdy to the doctor because of a nasty cold. It had started with a running nose and developed into a pretty bad cough. As every source from my baby book to Google searches agreed that coughs definitely need to be checked out, we made our way to the pediatrician. He gave Birdy a quick exam, concluded that the cough is caused by her running nose, and sent us home with a prescription for nose drops.

Two weeks later the little one was coughing again, this time so bad that it made her throw up. Freaked out and convinced that this time the cough is definitely to blame, I brought her to the doctor again. One more quick exam and we got sent home with a prescription for saline liquid, and instructions on how to give the baby a “nose shower”.

I should probably clarify that the only reason why we got prescriptions for those medicines is that the German healthcare system covers the complete medical costs for young children. In other words, these and other medications are simple over-the-counter stuff that can be bought in every pharmacy, having a prescription simply means that you don’t have to pay for them yourself.

German pediatricians
Photo credit: Alex Proimos via Flickr Creative Commons

Dealing with colds

Long story short, here are my (very subjective) observations about the approach of German pediatricians:

  • it’s normal for young children to have an on-and-off cold that lasts all winter (read: from beginning of September to end of May), their immune system will eventually learn to deal with it by itself,
  • nose drops are the ultimate evil and should be used very sparingly, they’re too addictive,
  • same story (for different reasons) with cough medicine – you won’t get any unless the cough is so bad that the child has serious trouble sleeping,
  • mild fevers shall not be sunk as they’re necessary for the immune system to develop, medicine should be given only when the child shows signs of suffering from the fever (in the case of Birdy usually over 39 C/102,2 F),
  • no antibiotics will be prescribed without doing a blood test first.

While this attitude makes sense to me, it can be very frustrating to keep on going to the doctor only to be sent home after being told that everything is fine. Eventually I bought a book on home remedies to at least have the feeling that I’m doing something to help.

Have you ever experienced cultural differences when dealing with doctors?

  1. So true!!! I think French doctors are halfway between British and German doctors. However, our paediatrician here in Munich does not consider nose drops evil 😉 and I can assure you that if the cough gets really bad, he will give you something. Our son had inhalations with the Pari-Gerät, with NaCl and/or Salbutamol for the first winter with 3-4 bronchitis, and Salbutamol in the air chamber the second winter with 2-3 (I can’t even tell exactly, we are so just used to it ^^) bronchitis and this year, only one with the Pari-Gerät! We regularly go have his cough check, as we are always worried that it’s a bronchitis. Lately though, it’s been only the running nose cough… When is end of May? ?

    • Oh yes we’re very familiar with bronchitis and Salbumatol, one very important reason to get those coughs checked! Birdy managed to get a bronchitis early June last year so end of May is sadly not a very reliable deadline…

      • Welcome into the club! Well actually I don’t really want us to be members, nor you 😉

  2. Liuba Borisova

    Definitely! Russians are crazy about meds and helping little ones with colds. Though I became a bit more European over the past years, and I think in Europe – all of Europe – the attitude is a bit more relaxed (the degree is different in different countries though). I have experienced Czech and Swedish doctors so far and a HUGE difference. Czechs would prescribe special nasal drops in case of VERY stuck nose (not the over-the-counter ones), they don’t do ANY vaccinations if there is even a runny nose (hence, we had to delay several times), they do give cough meds for dry cough (like Mucoltin), etc. etc. Still more relaxed than Russian doctors are :)) In Sweden you generally get seen by a nurse, not a doctor even (doctor only when it’s really bad and if you are lucky enough to have a good clinic, otherwise there are no doctors appointments within several weeks), and also like in Germany – no nasal drops, just seawater solutions for nose, paracetamol if high fever, fresh cool humid air, lots of fluids, etc. I got a prescription for cough medicine (no over the counter one) for Emilia last month cos she had a really bad cough, and then the next day after that I had to rush her to emergency in the hospital because the problems breathing (she had false croup). We got really speedy help there (young child, problems breathing, etc.), but again – only to relieve the swelling in the throat (to breath better), whereas the flue/cold itself had to go away itself. To be honest I was skeptical at first, there was nothing I could do though. But after two days of inhalations (for reducing swelling), Emilia became much better and next week was all jumpy again. :))) So perhaps this is the way forward 🙂

    • Glad to hear that your little one is back on her feet! Birdy recently had a pretty bad bronchitis and was completely miserable, had no energy to play, and was barely eating. Such things can be really scary, especially if you have the feeling that the medicine that you’ve been given is not strong enough. But, as with you, a little while later everything went back to normal.
      By the way, I heard from an acquaintance that the Swedes generally don’t dress their kids very warm in the winter, so in the beginning they get lots of colds and then the immune system eventually adapts. Do you have the same feeling? Dressing “warm” is such a cultural conception 🙂

  3. This is what my sister-in-law told me doctors did when they lived in Germany with their 3 children when they got sick.

  4. She said sometimes they would also be prescribed homeopathic treatments too. Have you experienced this too? Thanks for the post.

    • Oh yes, so many parents swear by homeopathic treatments here and I know that some doctors are prescribing that. Our pediatrician is very skeptical about that and always reminds that, according to studies, homeopathy is not more efficient than placebo. So it really depends on the doctor. There actually are people who specialize in homeopathy and don’t prescribe anything else!
      I’m happy you enjoyed the article!

      • I believe in homeopathy because it has been working for my children and me for about 6 years now. I was a skeptic but no longer. I think there aren’t many supporters of homeopathy because not many can make much money from it. I feel there are similarities to immunotherapy. I also don’t care if it works because its the mind over matter effect (which I know not to be true for my children and me). If it works then I feel we should embrace it. Thanks for your response. I am reading more and more studies sadly debunking homeopathy so I’m looking for information from reputable sources (not sellers) that use it so I can share them. If you come across anything, please let me know. Thanks again!

        • I’m with you, if it works it should be used! Here in Germany homeopathy is definitely used widely especially with kids and pregnant women. My midwife had a little something to give me and the baby for every single little postpartum problem and I continue using several of the products.

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