September 18, 2019

The common cold and your child

It's called the "common" cold with good reason; it's the most common infectious disease in the United States. The common cold responsible for more school absences than any other illness. Most kids under age five can have six to eight colds per year and the symptoms can last seven to fourteen days.

This contagious infection of the upper airway (nose, throat, and sinuses) is caused by a virus. A cold virus is spread from a sick person to others by sneezing or coughing or contact with the hands or mouth. A cold virus can live on toys, phones, door knobs, tables, and other objects for up to three hours and transfer to a child's hands. The virus gets on a child's hands and is transferred to the nose, mouth, or eyes by normal face touching habits.

Colds are more common in winter because people stay indoors and have more contact with each other. Not wearing a jacket, sleeping in a draft and going outside while your hair is wet do not cause colds. A cold is not the same as the flu (influenza).

What are the signs and symptoms of a cold?

  • Sneezing

  • Cough

  • Red eyes

  • Fussiness

  • Sore throat

  • Slightly swollen glands (lymph nodes)

  • Runny nose (clear at first, then thicker and slightly colored)

  • Decreased appetite

  • Slight fever (100° — 102º F)

When to call the doctor

Call if your child has the any of the signs and symptoms listed below:

  • Very sleepy or looks very ill.

  • Is younger than 2-3 months of age and has a fever (Temperatures are best taken in a rectal manner)

  • For children over 3 months of age if the temperature is 102º F or higher

  • Has had a temperature of 101º F or more for 48-72 hours (2-3 days) or longer

  • Breathing is fast, labored, or difficult or any other concerns for breathing

  • Young infant with a cough

  • Infants and older children with cough that is persisting or that worsening

  • Has yellow drainage from the eyes

  • A sore throat without a runny nose or cough

  • Ear, face, teeth or sinus pain

  • Looks dehydrated

    • Dry lips or mouth

    • Decreased urination (less than their normal urination pattern)

    • No tears with crying

    • Eyes appear sunken and dark

    • General weakness

    • Nasal congestion that is not beginning to get better in 7-10 days

    • Fever that occurs in the middle of the cold illness

Infants are more prone to dehydration because of their small size and because it is hard for them to eat with a stuffy nose.

Care Anywhere

You could also see urgent care providers for for cold symptoms and other problems through UW Health's Care Anywhere app. You don't have to leave home and can see a provider when it's convenient for you and your child.

How to prevent the common cold

Although you will not be able to prevent your child from catching colds, it is best to keep your child away from people who are ill, especially if your baby is younger than three months old. Keep your young baby away from shopping centers, day care settings, churches and other places where there may be large numbers of people who may be ill.

Other tips that may help prevent the spread of a cold virus:

  • Wash your hands and your child's hands often

  • Keep your child's hands away from the nose and mouth

  • Dispose of used facial tissues right away

  • Teach your child to cover the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing

  • Teach them to cough in their elbow (the Dracula cough cover-up)

  • Use a cool mist humidifier in your child's room to prevent drying of mucous membranes. When mucous membranes become dry, they are more at risk for infection.

Be careful if using large doses of vitamin C. It has not been shown to prevent or shorten colds and may cause diarrhea.

How to treat the common cold

There is no cure for colds. Antibiotics have no effect because they work against bacteria not viruses. Here are some things you can do that will help your child feel better:

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of fluids. Don't worry if your child doesn't want to eat solids.

  • Use a cool mist humidifier in your child's room. Do not use warm or hot mist as it can cause burns and scalds in children. Clean the humidifier weekly with a mixture of bleach and water.

  • Use a nasal bulb syringe for infants to clear the nose of mucus.

If your child's nose is stuffed up but not dripping, use warm plain water or saline drops in the nose before using the bulb syringe. Saline drops can be made by adding 1/4 teaspoon salt to 8 ounces warm water. Use an eye dropper or clean cotton ball to drip 2-4 drops into your child's nostrils. Let the drops stay in the nose for one minute and then use the bulb syringe. Repeat this process if needed. This is helpful in small babies before they eat because they breathe through their noses. When noses are stuffed up, it becomes hard for small babies to breathe while they are sucking and drinking. This is also a good thing to do before your child goes to sleep. Fresh saline drops should be made daily.

Are over the counter medicines safe for my child?

The FDA strongly advises that over the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products should not be used for infants and children under 6 years of age. Studies have shown cough and cold products do not work well for children under six years of age, and may pose serious health risks. They also can be the cause of accidental poisoning in young children because they are colored and taste good.

If your child has discomfort from fever, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or Ibuprofen may be given. Do not give your child aspirin. If you decide to give your older child a cold medicine, be sure to read the label well and check with your doctor. If the cold medicine contains acetaminophen, do not give your child extra Tylenol. Follow all dose guidelines with care; check with your clinic if unsure about doses.