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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

Most colds are caused by viruses. In fact, there are over 200 types of virus that can cause colds.

The viruses that cause colds are spread by sneezing, coughing and hand contact.

Cold weather doesn't cause colds, but colds are more common in the winter months. This is because:

  • people are in closer contact with each other because they stay indoors
  • cold viruses stay in the air and on surfaces longer in cold, dry environments
  • your body's ability to fight cold viruses is reduced at lower temperatures.

Cold symptoms

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
  • sneezing
  • sore throat and ears
  • cough
  • headache
  • 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.

Sometimes it's hard to tell the symptoms of cold and flu apart. When people say they have the flu, they usually really have a cold. People with flu might have more muscle pain and chills.

Does your child need to see a doctor about colds?

Almost all colds get better by themselves.

But you should take your child to see the GP if your child has one or more of the following symptoms. Your child:

  • won't drink fluids
  • vomits frequently
  • is unusually tired or sleepy
  • has a fever that doesn't improve in 48 hours
  • has a cough that lasts more than two weeks
  • has noisy breathing or wheezing.

You should call an ambulance or go to a hospital emergency department if your child:

  • complains of an intense headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • is having increasing difficulty breathing, or is breathing faster or harder than normal
  • is younger than three months old and has a fever
  • has a rash that doesn't disappear when you hold a glass pressed against the rash.

Also see your GP if your child doesn't seem better in 48 hours, or if you're worried.

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 GP might order a blood test or throat or nasal swab, or take a urine sample. Rarely, your GP 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 a cold go away more quickly. The best thing is to treat the symptoms.

Treatment starts with making sure your child is drinking enough so he doesn't get dehydrated, especially if he has a fever. You might need to give your child smaller amounts of fluid, just more often. Here's what to do:

  • 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.
  • 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 is older than one year, use an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte® or Hydralyte™. You can buy these from pharmacies and many supermarkets.

Here are some other things you can do to ease your child's symptoms:

  • If your child has a fever and is in pain or discomfort, give him paracetamol in the recommended dose and frequency. You can also give ibuprofen to children aged over three months.
  • Don't pressure your child to eat. If your child isn't hungry while she has a fever, that's OK. Her appetite will come back as she starts to feel better.
  • Try giving your child saline nasal drops, which might help ease a blocked nose.
  • Try one teaspoon of honey at night, which might help to reduce coughing. But don't give honey to children under 12 months.
  • Encourage 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.
  • Note that there's no need to stay away from dairy products - they don't make extra mucus.

These medications are not recommended for colds unless your GP says otherwise:

  • 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 usually caused by viruses, so antibiotics won't help and can even cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea.

Alternative medications and treatments probably don't help children, and some can even have harmful side effects. For example, inhaling eucalyptus can irritate or even burn some children's airways.

Ask your pharmacist or GP if you aren't sure about what medications or treatments are best for your child.

Don't give children aspirin. Aspirin is associated with Reye's syndrome, which is a rare but serious illness.

Preventing colds

You can't stop children from getting colds. But there are some simple things you and your child can do to reduce your child's chances of getting a cold or passing a cold on:

  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water after sneezing, coughing and blowing noses, and before eating.
  • Cough into your elbow to avoid getting germs on your hands.
  • Don't share drink bottles, cups and utensils with people who have colds.

Supplements 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.


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