What is a cold?
A cold is an infection of the nose and throat, caused by a virus. A cold is also called a viral upper respiratory infection.
Symptoms of a cold may include the following:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- red eyes
Many different viruses, up to 200 in fact, can cause a cold. In any given year, a child is likely to get 6 to 12 colds. Having many colds does not mean there is a weakness of the immune system. Over the years, repeated exposure to different viruses helps us develop some immunity to them. As children get older, they tend to get sick less often.
Colds usually last for up to 1 week
Most colds last for about 1 week, but some can last longer. The cough may linger. It may last up to 3 weeks.
If your child has a fever with the cold, the fever usually happens at the beginning of the cold, and lasts for 3 to 5 days.
The influenza virus causes a respiratory infection with high fevers that can last up to 7 days.
For more information, see Influenza (Flu).
Colds can cause complications
Most of the time, colds are not serious. However, a bacterial infection may sometimes result. This happens in about 5% to 10% of children with colds. Common bacterial infections include ear, throat, sinus, and chest infections. Signs of these can include pain in the affected area, ongoing high fevers, or trouble breathing. Children can also have trouble breathing if the cold virus triggers wheezing or asthma.
Colds spread by contact with other people who have colds
You can catch the cold virus if a person with a cold coughs, sneezes, or does not wash their hands and then touches your hands. Colds are not caused by cold air or drafts.
Children catch colds from family members, playmates, and caregivers. Children who go to day care or who have siblings tend to get more colds.
Complications from colds are more prevalent in babies. If your baby is less than 3 months old, try to keep him away from other children and adults with colds and other infectious illnesses.
Preventing colds and complications
Washing hands is the most important way to reduce the spread of colds. Wash your hands and your child’s hands often. Wash after coughing, sneezing, wiping the nose, or coming into contact with someone who has a cold. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand rinses.
Immunizations or vaccinations do not prevent colds, but they can help protect your child from developing some complications.
Vitamin C and Echinacea have not been shown to prevent or shorten colds.
Taking care of your child with a cold
You cannot make a cold go away faster. During the illness, try to keep your child as comfortable as possible, and offer lots of fluids to drink.
Treatment for a runny nose or congestion
For babies, you can put some saline (salt water) drops into the nose to help loosen the mucus. You can use 2 to 3 drops of saline in each nostril several times daily. You can do this more often if your child needs it, especially before feeding and at bedtime. Put a drop of saline into 1 nostril, and then a drop into the other nostril, and alternate that way.
After the saline drops, if you wish, you can remove mucus from the nostrils by using a soft rubber suction bulb. This is more helpful for young babies because they need to breathe through their nose while breastfeeding or sucking on a bottle. When the nose is blocked, the baby cannot feed well.
A cool mist vaporizer or humidifier in your child’s bedroom can sometimes help loosen the mucus.
Treatment for fever
If your child has fever or pain, give him acetaminophen (Tylenol or Tempra) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil). DO NOT give your child ASA (acetylsalicylic acid or Aspirin).
Treatment for cough
For most children, the cough is just a symptom of the cold. There is not much you can do to make the cough go away any faster. The cough will get better as the cold virus runs its course.
Coughing is often worse at night because children are lying flat. For older children, try using extra pillows to raise your child’s head.
Sometimes a severe cough can be a sign of a complication, such as a chest infection or asthma. Your doctor can listen to your child’s chest to decide if your child is having a complication.
Over-the-counter and prescription cold medicines are not usually helpful for children, and they do not make the illness go away any faster. Most cold and flu medicines are generally safe, but they can cause unwanted side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, trouble falling asleep, or rapid heart rate. They can also cause rare serious side effects. Talk to your doctor before giving cold medicines to a young child, especially if your child is taking other medicines or has other health problems. Never give your child cough and cold medicines if he is under 1 year of age.
Antibiotics have no effect on cold viruses. Using antibiotics when they are not needed can make it harder to treat bacterial infections with antibiotics if needed in the future. Antibiotics can also cause other side effects, such as diarrhea, nausea, or rash.
Your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic only if your child is showing signs of a bacterial complication.
When to contact a health care provider
Call your child’s regular doctor if:
- your child is younger than 3 months old
- your child gets a fever several days after the start of a cold
- your child’s fever lasts more than 5 days
- your child’s runny nose lasts more than 10 days
- a yellow discharge develops in your child's eyes
- your baby cannot drink enough fluid because his nose is too stuffy
- your child has chest pain
- your child has ear pain or fluid draining from the ear
- your child has a very sore throat
Go to your nearest Emergency Department or call 911 if:
- your child looks more ill
- your child seems lethargic (very sleepy) or irritable (cranky)
- your child is having trouble breathing
- your child’s lips look blue
- your child has a painful or stiff neck or a severe headache
- Colds are caused by a virus which is easily spread from person to person.
- Symptoms of the common cold include runny nose, coughing, sneezing, and mild fever.
- If your child has a cold, keep him comfortable, give him lots of fluids, and try using a humidifier.
- The best way to reduce the spread of colds is by washing hands often.