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.
Colds are also called upper respiratory tract infections.
Causes of colds and upper respiratory tract infections
Most colds are caused by viruses. In fact, there are over 200 types of virus that can cause colds or upper respiratory tract infections. 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 colds 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:
- a stuffy or runny nose
- sore throat and ears
- red eyes
- swollen lymph glands
- occasionally fever.
Often, your child will lose her appetite, and she might even feel sick or vomit. She 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 like ear infection, laryngitis or croup, or lower respiratory tract infections like bronchiolitis or pneumonia. These are relatively uncommon illnesses compared to the uncomplicated cold.
When to see your GP about cold symptoms
Almost all colds get better by themselves. The best thing to do is treat the symptoms.
But if your child has one or more of the following symptoms, you should take him to see the GP. Your child:
- 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
- is younger than three months old and has a fever
- has a rash that doesn’t disappear when you hold a glass against it
- has a cough that lasts more than three weeks.
Also see your GP 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.
Tests for colds
Most children with colds don’t need any tests. Sometimes your GP might do tests to rule out other conditions.
Very occasionally your doctor might order a blood test or throat or nasal swab, or take a urine sample. Rarely, the doctor might order a chest X-ray.
There’s no cure for the common cold. There’s also no specific treatment that can make the cold go away more quickly.
- Give your child paracetamol in recommended doses for up to 48 hours. This can help if your child has a fever and is in pain or discomfort.
- If your breastfed child is younger than six months, offer extra breastfeeds.
- If your formula-fed child is younger than six months, offer her usual amount of formula. You might need to feed her smaller amounts more frequently if she’s unwell.
- If your child is older than six months, keep breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. You can also offer your child clear fluids, like water. If your child isn’t hungry while he has a fever, that’s OK.
- For children older than 12 months, try giving your child 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 can cause side effects like rapid heart rate, jitteriness and insomnia. Also they 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 GP if your child really needs a prescription.
It’s pretty much impossible to stop children from getting colds and upper respiratory tract infections.
Vitamins – like 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.