Sensory Processing and Colds: Nothing to Sneeze At!

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Here in the US, it is cold and flu season.  Most of my day is spend with kids recovering from some upper respiratory virus.  A few seem to have a continuous runny nose and cough.  They also have an increase in their sensory processing issues.  Is this connected, and if so, what can be done?

  1. Anything that affects health will make sensory processing harder.  Anyone, at any age, will struggle more when they don’t feel well.  If a child is super-sensitive, feeling ill will make them edgier and more avoidant.  If a child is a sensory seeker, that funny feeling in their head that changes when they flip upside down will probably make them do it more.  If a child is a poor modulator, and goes from 0-60 mph easily, they will have more difficulty staying in their seat and staying calm.
  2. Colds often create fluid in the ears.  This is a problem for hearing.  This is often a problem for speech and mealtimes.  It is also a problem for vestibular processing.  Fluid in the ear means that children are hearing you as if they are underwater.  Their speech may be directly affected.  They probably realize that biting and chewing open the eustacian tubes from the mouth to the ear, so they may want to chew more.  On everything.  They may also be unable to handle car rides without throwing up.  They may refuse to do any vestibular activities in therapy.
  3. Children sleep poorly when ill.  Anyone with sensory processing issues will struggle more when they are tired.  Young children cannot get the sleep they need and don’t understand why they feel the way they do.  Enough said.
  4. Spatial processing problems will get worse.  Being unable to use hearing to orient to the space and the people and objects in the room, children will roam around more, touch things more, startle more, stand still and look disoriented, and may refuse to go into spaces that are hard to process, like gyms or big box stores.  Uh-oh.

So what can you do as a parent or a therapist?

  • Understand that this is happening.  It is real.  It may not be a personality issue, a deterioration in their ABA program, or a problem with therapy.
  • Ask your pediatrician for more help.  There are nasal sprays and inhaled medications that can help, and some, like steroids, that can create more behavioral issues.  If your child needs steroids, you need to understand what effects they can have.  Saline sprays, cold mist humidifiers, soups and honey for coughs, if your pediatrician approves, are low-tech ways to help a child suffer less.
  • Alter your daily routine if needed.  Making less appointments, fewer challenges, and more rest could help.  Kids can be over-scheduled and under-rested.  Therapy sessions may have to be adjusted to both be less stressful and more helpful.
  • Your child may benefit from vestibular movement if they do not have an untreated ear infection.  Your OT can help you craft a sensory diet that moves fluid, but not if there is an infection.

Read more about sensory processing here: Does Your Child Hate Big Spaces? There is a Sensory-Based Explanation and Spatial Awareness and Sound: “Hearing” The Space Around You

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