Colds (Viral Upper Respiratory Infections)


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. Many different viruses, up to 200, can cause a cold. In any given year, a child is likely to get from 6 to 12 colds. Having many colds does not mean your child has a weak immune system. Over the years, repeated exposure to different viruses helps your child to develop immunity to them. As your child gets older, they tend to get sick less often.

Signs and symptoms of colds

Symptoms of a cold may include the following:

Most colds last for about 1 week, but some can last longer. The cough may linger. It may last up to 3 weeks.

Your child may have a fever with the cold. A 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.

Colds spread by contact with other people who have colds

You get a cold 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 daycare or who have siblings tend to get more colds.

Preventing colds

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 sanitizers.

Immunizations or vaccinations do not prevent colds, but they can help protect your child from developing complications.

Vitamin C and Echinacea have not been shown to prevent or shorten colds.

Colds can cause complications

Most of the time, colds are not serious. However, your child may get a bacterial infection because of the cold. 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.

Complications from colds happen more often in babies. Try to keep babies less than 3 months old away from children and adults with colds and other infectious illnesses.

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

You can put some saline (salt water) drops into your baby’s 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 one 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 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 them 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. You can do nothing to make the cough go away 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 their 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 of no help for children and do not make the illness go away faster. Most cold and flu medicines are 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 health problems. Do not give your child cough and cold medicines if they are under 6 years of age.


Antibiotics have no effect on cold viruses. Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics can also cause 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 see a doctor

Call your child’s 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 their 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 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

Key points

  • Symptoms of the common cold include runny nose, coughing, sneezing and mild fever.
  • Colds are caused by a virus which is easily spread from person to person.
  • If your child has a cold, keep them comfortable, give lots of fluids and try using a humidifier.
  • The best way to reduce the spread of colds is by washing hands often.
​​Trent Mizzi, BSc, MD, FRCPC