Colds are a type of upper respiratory tract infection. These infections are the most common cause of illness in children (as well as in adults).
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 are particularly prone to 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 his immunity and get fewer colds.
Most colds are caused by a virus. In fact, there are over 200 types of virus that can cause the common cold. This is why you can’t be immunised against a cold.
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. Similarly, getting wet or chilled doesn’t cause a cold.
Cold symptoms are pretty much the same in children and adults. You might see one or more of the following:
- a stuffy or runny nose
- sore throat and ears
- red eyes
- swelling of lymph glands
- occasionally fever.
Often, your child will lose her appetite, and she might even feel sick or vomit. Your child might be miserable or irritable.
The actual symptoms will vary from child to child, and from illness to illness. Usually the symptoms will 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, which is widespread.
When to see your doctor
Almost all colds get better without treatment. The best you can do is use the methods described below, in Treatment.
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.
Very occasionally your doctor will order a blood test, throat or nasal swab – or, rarely, a chest X-ray. But most children with colds don’t need any tests.
There’s no cure for the common cold. There’s also no specific treatment that will make the cold go away more quickly.
Don’t give children aspirin
. Aspirin is associated with Reye’s syndrome
, which is a rare but serious illness.
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 (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 she won’t be hungry, make sure she drinks lots of fluids. Your child's appetite will come back as she starts to feel better.
You should avoid the following:
- aspirin, as it can cause serious illness
- decongestants – these have side effects such as rapid heart rate, jitteriness and insomnia, and haven’t been shown to change the course of the illness. Decongestants go under the brand names of Benadryl, Bisolvon, Demazin, Dimetapp, Duro-tuss, Logicin, Robitussin and Sudafed
- antibiotics – colds are caused by viruses so antibiotics won’t help, even though they’re often prescribed. Not only are antibiotics (such as penicillin) unnecessary, but they can cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea
- cough medicines – your child’s coughing because her windpipe’s irritated or because there’s a lot of mucus in there, and cough medicine won’t help with either of these issues
- vitamin C or echinacea – there’s no evidence that vitamin C or echinacea has any effect on how long or how bad colds are in children if these treatments are started after your child gets a cold.
There’s no need to stay away from dairy products, because 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.
It’s pretty much impossible to stop children from getting colds. Vitamins – such as vitamin C and echinacea – haven’t been found to increase children’s resistance to colds. But ongoing vitamin C use has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of colds in children.
Flu injections aren’t necessary for most children. They’re given only to children who have a:
- serious chest condition, such as cystic fibrosis or severe asthma requiring steroids
- depressed immune system
- chronic medical condition.
There are some simple things you can do to reduce the chance 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.