The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), is an infection of the nose and throat, the “upper” parts of our breathing system (respiratory tract).
A cold is caused by many different viruses, which are spread from person to person through direct contact. For example, a person can be exposed to a virus when he touches his eyes or nose, after shaking hands with an infected person or when he is “splashed” by the tiny droplets that come out when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Once someone is exposed, the virus usually enters the body through the eyes or nose, and causes stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, hoarse voice, cough and fever.
Colds usually are mild illnesses that get better within one or two weeks. However, even mild symptoms can make children feel miserable. This guide will give you information about different ways to treat your child’s cold symptoms.
Remember, this guide is not meant to take the place of a visit or call to your doctor. If your child has asthma or any other chronic health problem, you should call your doctor rather than using this guide.
First, let’s check to see if your child’s symptoms could be something more serious than a common cold.
Does your child have any of the following symptoms?
- difficulty breathing
- lips, mouth and fingertips turning blue
- inability to speak
- neck pain or stiffness
- not drinking and/or not making urine
That’s good. These symptoms would require emergency care. Here are a few more symptoms you need to consider before we get to treating a cold.
Does your child have any of the following symptoms?
- body aches or pains
- diarrhea or vomiting
- high fever (102F/39C or higher)
- a cough that is severe or sounds barky
That’s good. These symptoms are uncommon with a cold, and are more common with other illnesses, such as influenza (the flu) or gastroenteritis.
Now we can address helping your child feel better. Since there is no specific therapy available to fight the cold virus, treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms.
Although there is no medicine to “cure” a cold, there are things you can do to help lessen the symptoms of a cold and help your child feel better. Let’s look at common cold symptoms and how to treat them.
Coughing helps to clear mucous from the airways but can be uncomfortable for your child. Besides irritating the throat and making it sore, coughing can keep your child up at night, adding to their misery.
There are things you can do to decrease your child’s coughing:
- If your child has a runny nose, the cough may be triggered by mucous dripping down the back of the throat. In that case, treating the stuffy nose may decrease the coughing.
- Your child could be coughing because the back of their throat is irritated. Cough drops (lozenges) that contain menthol feel cool and can make the throat feel better and decrease coughing, but these should only be used for children over age four because younger children could choke on them.
- Cough medicines containing dextromethorphan are available without a prescription. Studies have shown them to not be much more helpful than a placebo, but if the cough is keeping your child awake at night, you could give one a try. Check with your doctor before giving your child any medication, and be sure to read dosage directions carefully.
- Elevating the head at night by putting a folded blanket under the crib mattress or using an extra pillow for older children may help if mucous running down the throat is causing the cough.
You can pick another symptom to learn how to help your child feel better or you can choose to move on with the guide.
A fever is any temperature over 100.4F/38C.
Is your child under three months of age?
Although fever can be frightening for parents, it actually is a good sign as your child’s body is fighting off the virus that is causing the cold symptoms. By raising body temperature, fever actually helps the immune (infection-fighting) system. Still, fever can make children feel miserable, and in a small percentage of people, fever that goes up too quickly or too high can cause a seizure. There are things you can do to reduce fever and to help your child feel more comfortable:
- Give your child lots of liquids (such as broth, apple juice, flavored ices or water) in order to keep well hydrated, as fevers will cause your child to use extra fluid.
- Dress your child in light clothing and use light-weight bed linens. Overdressing your child can cause discomfort from being too warm.
- Try acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring down the fever. Be sure to read dosage directions carefully.
- For high fevers that are not coming down with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, try giving your child a lukewarm bath. Do not use cold water, as this will make your child shiver, which will raise body temperature.
A temperature higher than 102F/39C should prompt a call to your doctor.
Call your doctor now. Any fever in a baby younger than three months can be a sign of a serious infection and needs medical attention.
Nasal stuffiness (congestion) can make your child uncomfortable, especially when lying down to sleep. Babies especially have a hard time with a stuffy nose, since they always try to breathe through their nose. There are things you can do to help reduce the stuffiness and dripping:
- Saline (salt water) nose drops or nose sprays do not contain any medicine, so they can be used safely at any age to rinse out any mucous from the nose and help keep the nasal passages open and moist.
- A warm bath or shower can help loosen congestion. Special bubble baths for “colds and flu” contain oils and fragrances that may help relieve congestion.
- A bulb syringe can be used for babies, to remove mucus from inside the tip of the nose. Squeeze the bulb end of the syringe and then gently place the tip just inside the nose (not too deep). Slowly loosen your grip on the bulb, so that mucus from the nose will be sucked into the bulb. Some babies scream when you do this, but sucking out the mucus makes it easier for a baby to breathe through their nose. This also keeps mucus from running down the back of the throat where it can cause cough and irritation. It can be especially helpful to do this 20 to 30 minutes before your baby feeds or goes to sleep.
- Blowing their nose is helpful for children who can do it. Help younger children blow through one nostril while holding the other one shut.
- Decongestants (pseudoephedrine or Sudafed, for example) taken by mouth may help to treat nasal stuffiness by decreasing swelling of the lining in the nose. They can be used for children over six months, but should always be used carefully because they can make some children “hyper” or fussy. Check with your doctor before giving your child any medication, and be sure to read dosage directions carefully.
- Antihistamines (diphenhydramine, for example), are also medications taken by mouth that may help decrease nasal stuffiness. They too can be used in children over six months, and can cause drowsiness in some people. Again, you should check with your doctor before giving your child any medication, and dosage directions should be followed carefully.
Your child’s throat may be sore from mucous dripping down the back of the throat. In that case, treating the stuffy nose may make the throat feel better. Sometimes, the throat is irritated from the virus itself. There are things you can do to make your child’s throat feel better:
- Give your child lots of liquids to soothe the throat and stay well hydrated. Cool liquids such as cool juice may feel best on a sore throat. Popsicles can be helpful, too.
- Cough drops or sore throat lozenges that contain menthol feel cool and can make the throat feel better. Hard candies and lollipops often work just as well. However, cough drops and hard candies should only be given to children over age four because younger children could choke on them.
- Herbal cough drops (or tea) made with horehound, licorice root or slippery elm bark can be soothing for a sore throat. Again, cough drops should never be given to children younger than four. Avoid any teas that contain caffeine, as they can lead to dehydration in sick children.
- Older children may gargle with warm salt water (1/2 teaspoon of salt in 8-16 ounces warm water), if they are able to do so.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer (humidifier) in your child’s room, but make sure to clean it every few days according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Try acetaminophen or ibuprofen for mild pain. Be sure to read dosage directions carefully.
There are many “cough and cold” products available. Many of them do not actually work that well and others have side effects that outweigh any benefits. And some should always be avoided unless your doctor specifically instructs you to give it to your child.
- Aspirin and other aspirin-containing products should never be given to children because aspirin has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a serious illness that affects the liver and brain.
- Cough suppressants (dextromethorphan, for example) are no better at quieting children’s coughs than plain cherry syrup and can have serious side effects.
- Decongestant nose sprays may help to treat nasal stuffiness by decreasing swelling of the lining in the nose, but should never be used for more than two or three days. If used longer, the nasal congestion will actually get worse instead of better.
- Ephedra (Ma huang) has been used as a decongestant in the past, but should never be given to children due to its possible serious side effects.
- Expectorants (guaifenesin, for example) are supposed to loosen up mucous and make it easier to be coughed out. Unfortunately, they have not been shown to help children who have colds.
- Herbal remedies (such as Echinacea or goldenseal) have not been well studied for treating colds in children and may have unwanted side effects.
- Throat sprays and cough drops that contain an anesthetic, such as benzocaine (Cepacol) or phenol (Cepastat, Chloraseptic), can help numb any throat pain. However, the tongue and other parts of the mouth can become numb as well.
- Zinc lozenges may help adults get over a cold faster but they do not seem to lessen cold symptoms in children. Most children do not like their taste and children younger than age four might choke on them.
Most of the time, a cold is a mild illness and the symptoms are better within a week or two. Call the doctor if your child:
- is getting worse instead of better or has symptoms that last longer than two weeks
- is having trouble breathing
- is not drinking and has not made any urine in 6-8 hours
- seems too sleepy or tired (lethargic) at those times when he usually would be awake and active
- has mild fever for more than 3-5 days, has high fever, or starts to get fever after several days of cold symptoms
- gets ear pain, or any other new pain.
Check with your school or daycare regarding specific policies about returning after illness. Although colds are contagious (spread from person to person), children with colds usually can go back to school or daycare as soon as they have no fever for 24 hours and feel well enough to be there.
We hope this information has been helpful to you. Thank you for reading!
Call your doctor. These symptoms are uncommon with a cold, and are more common with other illnesses, such as influenza (the flu), pneumonia, pertussis (whooping cough), or croup.
Get emergency care now! Your child may have a serious illness and needs medical attention.
Keep reading: Page 1 of 1Next