A cold is a type of upper respiratory tract infection. These infections are the most common cause of illness in children (as well as in adults). Treat the symptoms to help your child feel more comfortable while she gets over a cold.
Children and colds
The average preschool child has at least six colds a year. Sometimes, especially in winter, it might seem that your child is sick for weeks at a time, barely getting over one cold before getting another one.
Young children get a lot of colds because they haven’t had a chance to build up immunity to the many viruses that cause colds. As your child grows older, he’ll gradually build up immunity and get fewer colds.
Causes of upper respiratory tract infections
Most colds are caused by viruses. In fact, there are over 200 types of virus that can cause an upper respiratory tract infection. This is why you can’t be immunised against colds.
The viruses that cause colds are spread by sneezing, coughing and hand contact.
Colds are more common in the winter months. Cold weather by itself doesn’t increase the chance of getting a cold, but people are in closer contact with each other because they stay indoors. This means they’re more likely to infect each other.
Getting wet or being cold doesn’t cause a cold either.
Cold symptoms are pretty much the same in children and adults. The symptoms vary from child to child, and from illness to illness.
You might see one or more of the following:
Often, your child will lose her appetite, and she might even feel sick or vomit. Your child might be miserable or irritable.
Cold symptoms usually last anywhere from a few days to a week or more. Your child will usually recover fully without any problems.
Very occasionally there are complications, such as ear infection, laryngitis, croup, or a lower respiratory tract infection, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. These are relatively uncommon illnesses compared to the uncomplicated cold.
When to see your doctor about cold symptoms
Almost all colds get better by themselves. The best thing to do is treat the symptoms.
But you should take your child to see the doctor if he:
- won’t drink fluids
- vomits frequently
- complains of intense headache
- is pale and sleepy
- has difficulty breathing
- has a high fever that doesn’t get better with paracetamol.
Also see your doctor if your child doesn’t show some improvement in 48 hours, or if you’re worried. For more information, you might like to read our article on recognising serious illness.
Don’t give children aspirin. Aspirin is associated with Reye’s syndrome
, which is a rare but serious illness.
Tests for colds
Most children with colds don’t need any tests.
Very occasionally your doctor will order a blood test, or a throat or nasal swab. Rarely, the doctor might order a chest X-ray.
There is no cure for the common cold. There is also no specific treatment that can make the cold go away more quickly.
There are several options that can help relieve symptoms:
- paracetamol, given in recommended doses for up to 48 hours, can help if your child has a fever or is in pain (if the fever lasts more than 48 hours, it’s best to see your doctor)
- warm drinks, which can ease a sore throat and dry mouth
- saline nasal drops or spray or eucalyptus inhalant, which can ease a blocked nose.
It’s a good idea for your child to take things easy, but there’s no need for her to stay in bed. Let your child decide how active she wants to be.
Although it’s likely your child won’t be hungry, make sure he drinks lots of fluids so that he doesn’t get dehydrated. Your child's appetite will come back as he starts to feel better.
You should avoid the following:
aspirin – it can cause your child serious illness
cough medicines – your child is coughing because her windpipe is irritated or has a lot of mucus, and cough medicines won’t help with either of these issues
decongestants (like Benadryl®, Bisolvon®, Demazin®, Dimetapp®, Duro-tuss™, Logicin®, Robitussin® and Sudafed®) – these have side effects such as rapid heart rate, jitteriness and insomnia, and can’t help with a cold
antibiotics – colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics won’t help and can even cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea.
There’s no need to stay away from dairy products – they don’t make extra mucus.
There are also several treatments that aren’t necessary. Always ask your doctor if your child really needs a prescription.
All colds will get better without antibiotics, and just as quickly as they would with them.
Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections
It’s pretty much impossible to stop children from getting colds and upper respiratory tract infections.
Vitamins – such as vitamin C and echinacea – don’t stop children getting colds. And there’s no evidence that vitamin C or echinacea has any effect on how long or how bad colds are in children if your child starts taking these treatments after he gets a cold. But ongoing vitamin C use can reduce the duration and severity of colds in children.
There are some simple things you can do to reduce your child’s chances of getting a cold, or passing it on – for example, wash your own and your child’s hands after sneezing, coughing and blowing noses, and before eating. You can also teach your child to cough into her elbow to avoid getting germs on her hands.