New Study: Helpful Bacteria Stop Cold Symptoms in Kids

Including yogurt and other probiotic foods in kids' diets could mean fewer fevers and runny noses.

August 7, 2009

Probiotics, bacteria found in yogurt and lesser-known fermented foods like kefir and some vegetables, may help ward off colds in kids, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. The bacteria are beneficial types that live in the human body, but their numbers can be reduced by stress, an unhealthy diet, or antibiotic medication.

THE DETAILS: In the industry-funded study, sponsored by Danisco, a maker of probiotic products, Chinese researchers tested the effect of probiotics on 326 children ages 3 to 5 who attended a child-care center. Two times a day for six months, the children received one of the following supplements:


1. A single strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM (a bacteria commonly found in yogurt and other foods)

2. A combination of the above strain and Bifidobacterium animalis subsp lactis Bi-07

3. A placebo, containing no probiotics

When compared to the group that received no probiotics, the group that received just the Lactobacillus strain had a 53 percent lower incidence of fever; those taking the combination saw a nearly 73 percent decrease in fever cases. Taking the Lactobacillus alone was also associated with 41 percent fewer cases of coughing and 30 percent fewer cases of a runny nose. The combo supplement yielded a 62 percent drop in coughing and 60 percent fewer runny nose reports. Kids on probiotics also missed fewer days of child care.

WHAT IT MEANS: While this study was funded by a probiotic products company, previous research has found that these helpful bacteria are effective against diarrhea caused by viruses or antibiotics, that they can ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and that they may shorten illness by stimulating the immune system. Most research has been done with adult subjects, though. "While there's not yet a recommendation for all children to take probiotic supplements, they can still benefit from eating a wide variety of foods, including ones containing probiotics," says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Here's what you need to know about probiotics:

• Yogurt is OK, but not your best choice. Yogurt does contain some beneficial bacteria, but there are many other places to find the beneficial bacteria, says nutritional consultant and educator Donna Gates, creator of The Body Ecology Diet (Body Ecology 2006). Besides yogurt, Greek yogurt and some types of sour cream, other options include miso and tempeh. Gates recommends kefir (think of it as a runnier version of yogurt that you can eat or drink) as a top probiotic choice for kids who can tolerate dairy. Health stores carry the organic brand Helios.

When you’re looking for yogurts and other food products that contain probiotics, Krieger suggests looking for the words lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and streptococcus thermaphilo. “But more evidence is needed before we are only taking probiotic supplements to prevent a cold or flu,” she says.

• Avoid the micrflora killers. Gates says Americans are extremely deficient in healthy gut bacteria, and warns that a high-sugar diet, antibiotics, and stress can kill the good stuff in your gut. While we need antibiotics to treat severe bacterial infections, make sure you take probiotics, too, to keep your healthy gut bacteria levels high.