A cold is a type of upper respiratory tract infection and is sometimes called as such. These infections are the most common cause of illness in children and adults. You can treat cold symptoms to help your child feel more comfortable while she gets better.

Children and colds

The average pre-school child has at least 6 colds a year. Sometimes, 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 colds and upper respiratory tract infections

Most colds are caused by viruses. In fact, there are over 200 types of viruses 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.

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

Cold symptoms are pretty much the same in children and adults. The symptoms vary from child to child, and from illness to illness.

You may see one or more of the following:

  • a stuffy or runny nose

  • sneezing

  • sore throat and ears

  • cough

  • headache

  • red eyes

  • swollen lymph nodes

  • occasional fever.

Often, your child will lose his appetite, and he might even feel sick or vomit. He 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.

Occasionally, there are complications like an
ear infection, laryngitis or croup, or lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. These are relatively uncommon illnesses compared to the uncomplicated cold.

When to see your General Practitioner (GP) about cold symptoms

Almost all colds get better by themselves. The best thing to do is treat the symptoms.

However, 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 3 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 3 weeks.

Also see your GP if your child doesn’t show some improvement within 48 hours, or if you’re worried.

Don’t give children aspirin. Aspirin is associated with Reye’s syndrome
1, which is a rare but 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.

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.

Cold treatment

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 6 months, offer extra breastfeeds.

  • If your formula-fed child is younger than 6 months, offer him usual amount of formula. You might need to feed him smaller amounts more frequently if he’s unwell.

  • If your child is older than 6 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 alright.

  • 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 him to stay in bed. Let your child decide how active he 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 serious illness in children.

  • 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 produce extra mucus.

There are also several treatments that aren’t necessary. Always ask your GP or paediatrician if your child really needs a prescription.

Preventing colds

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 from 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. However, 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 on a cold. 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.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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1 A rare disease that occurs mainly in children aged 4-16 years, and affects all organs of the body, particularly the liver and the brain. It's usually preceded by a viral infection like the flu, cold or chickenpox, with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, lethargy and, in later stages, changed behaviour or mental state. This syndrome isn't contagious and its cause is unknown, although taking aspirin can increase the risk of contracting it. Its effects can be mild in some children, but lethal in others.