Cold virus

What is the common cold? 

A contagious viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, the common cold is one infection your child is likely to get. In fact, most children have eight or more colds per year, making it the most common illness in children. Although the common cold can be a nuisance, it typically goes away on its own, and unlike the flu or other common childhood illnesses, it rarely results in serious complications.

What are common cold symptoms? 

Common cold symptoms, which are similar but less severe than those experienced with seasonal flu, include sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, coughing, watery eyes, mild headache, and mild body aches. These symptoms can last up to two weeks.

How do children get the common cold? 

The cold virus (more than 100 different viruses can cause a cold) spreads through the air from person to person when an infected person sneezes or coughs and the uninfected person breathes in the virus. It also spreads through hand-to-mouth contact (touching the mouth or nose after touching a contaminated surface), as well as through contact with shared objects, such as utensils, towels, toys, or telephones. For example, if a child with a cold sneezes into her hand and then touches the hand of a healthy child who then touches his nose or mouth, the healthy child can get infected. Contrary to popular belief, children cannot “catch cold” by failing to wear their jackets, hats, or gloves outdoors.

How is the common cold treated? 

The common cold is a viral illness, so taking antibiotics will not make your child feel better. In fact, taking an antibiotic for an illness that doesn’t require one can actually do more harm than good

With most colds lasting 1–2 weeks, the best treatment is tincture of time. You can use medicine (as directed by the child’s health care provider) to provide relief from symptoms—acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to ease muscle aches, headache, sore throat, and fever. But never give aspirin to children under the age of 12 (or to teens under the age of 19 with a viral illness) due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness. For additional cold symptom relief, check out the list of cold remedies—what works, what doesn’t, and what can’t hurt: 

  • Offer fluids such as water, unsweetened fruit juice, and clear broth to prevent dehydration and loosen congestion. Breastfed babies should continue to breastfeed. Breastfeeding will provide not only fluids but also comfort and soothing for an unwell-feeling child!
  • Encourage older children to gargle with saltwater (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt dissolved in 8-ounces of warm water) to relieve a sore or scratchy throat.
  • Use saline nasal drops or sprays to relieve stuffiness and congestion. For babies, put several drops in each nostril and gently suction with a bulb syringe.
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to your home (or your child’s room). Cold viruses thrive in dry conditions and dry air can worsen a stuffy nose and dry throat. To prevent the growth of mold, fungus, and bacteria, clean humidifiers thoroughly, following the instructions that come with each unit.
  • Avoid using over-the-counter cold and cough medicines. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that cold and cough medicines not be given to infants and young children. These drugs have not been proven effective and can be harmful. Click here to read more on what parents should know about children’s cold and cough medications.

How can the common cold be prevented? 

There is no vaccine for the common cold. However, the following practices can reduce your child’s risk: 

  • Wash hands frequently. Teach children the importance of handwashing. Review the CDC’s tips for proper handwashing
  • Clean kitchen and bathroom countertops often, especially when a family member has a common cold. 
  • Wash your children’s toys. 
  • Use a tissue when sneezing or coughing. If a tissue isn’t available, use an elbow or shoulder (rather than a hand). 
  • Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils. 
  • Avoid contact with anyone who has a cold. 
  • Choose a child care facility with good hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping sick children at home.

When should I call a doctor? 

Parents should contact their child’s health care provider if a child under 3 months of age shows signs of a cold or if an older child’s symptoms last more than 10 days. Seek medical attention right away if your child has any of the following symptoms

  • Fever of 100°F in newborns up to 6 weeks old; 102°F in children ages 6 weeks to 2 years; 103°F or higher in children 2 years or older 
  • Fever that lasts more than three days 
  • Signs of dehydration (for babies, this would mean fewer wet diapers) 
  • Refusing food and fluid 
  • Vomiting or abdominal pain 
  • Unusual sleepiness 
  • Severe headache 
  • Stiff neck 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Persistent crying 
  • Ear pain 
  • Persistent cough lasting for more than two weeks 

Last updated September 22, 2021

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