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Colds and Kids

Why does my child get so many colds?

The common cold (also known as an upper respiratory infection) is caused by a virus. Trouble is, there are at least 200 different known viruses, with new ones occasionally appearing. Children develop immunity to the viruses one cold at a time. Remember all the colds you've had over your lifetime? Your child has to get every one -- and more -- to be immune to all cold viruses.

Expect the average toddler to have 6 to 12 viral infections a year. School-age children have fewer infections, and the number drops to about 3 a year for teens. Since each infection often takes more than a week to completely run its course, it may seem like children are constantly sick, especially during the colder months when more viruses are circulating.

How do I know if what my child has is just a cold?

The common cold is a group of symptoms that includes runny nose, fever, sore throat, and cough. Your child may also have red eyes and swollen lymph nodes on either side of his neck. If he has those symptoms, he very likely has the common cold.

When should I call the doctor?

Call if your child's symptoms go beyond that of the common cold. If your child's fever (over 38 degrees C) lasts for more than three days, for example, you may be dealing with a superinfection (a bacterial infection on top of a virus). That complication, which results when cold viruses lower the body's defences and allow bacteria to gain a foothold, needs antibiotics.

If your child also has ear pain, difficulty breathing, a stiff neck and wheezing, or a sore throat with a high fever, he may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics. You should suspect an additional infection if your child's cold symptoms change. Call your doctor if you observe any of the following:

Complaints of ear pain, which may signal an ear infection:
  • A thick yellow or green nasal discharge for more than 10 days with headaches and pressure over the forehead and under the eyes, which may be a sinus infection
  • A worsening cough accompanied by fever and difficulty breathing, which could be signs of pneumonia
  • A sore throat that comes on abruptly with a high fever and tender, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, which may mean your child has strep throat
  • A stiff neck or wheezing

All of the above illnesses may involve bacteria and require antibiotic treatment.

Be aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis: fever, vomiting, headache, drowsiness and rash in older children and failure to feed, high pitched cry in younger children. If you suspect your child has meningitis contact your GP urgently or bring your child immediately to a Hospital Accident and Emergency Department.

How can I protect my child against colds?

Frequent hand-washing is one of your best weapons against the common cold. Cold viruses are spread by body secretions that penetrate the protective mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat. The hardy viruses can survive for a few hours on hands, tissues, countertops, and toys. In addition to encouraging your child to wash his hands often, teach him to cover his mouth and nose when he coughs or sneezes, and to dispose of tissues in the bin to avoid spreading germs. (Instead of covering his mouth with his hands when a tissue isn't available, teach him to cough into the angle of his elbow.)

How do I treat my child's cold when he gets one?

Since there's no way to speed up the healing process, the best you can do is manage the symptoms. Offer your child plenty of water and soup. His body is working harder to fight off the infection, and fevers increase fluid requirements. Warm liquids, like chicken soup and vegetable broth, soothe the throat and temporarily unclog congested nasal passages.

What should I do if my child's nose is stuffed up?

Nasal congestion is the most aggravating symptom of the common cold; you can expect toddlers and young children to waken at night because of it. Teach your child to sniff up the mucus and swallow it as well as to blow into a tissue. A humidifier or a cool-mist vapourizer can prevent nasal passages from drying out, which makes the mucus more difficult to remove.

Why doesn't my doctor prescribe antibiotics for a cold?

Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria; they do nothing for the viruses that cause the common cold. Also, overusing antibiotics leads to widespread resistant bacteria, which circulate freely among children, especially in day-care. Keep in mind that yellow or green nasal discharge is not a call for antibiotics unless it lasts for more than 10 days or there are other signs of sinus infection.

Should I use over-the-counter medicines?

No scientific study has ever shown that nasal decongestants work any better than a placebo in children under 6 years old, and it's generally recommended that children under 6 do not use them unless a doctor recommends it. The medications are often sold in combination cough and cold products, which increase the number of active ingredients and the possibility of side effects. If you want to try an over-the-counter (OTC) medication, follow these rules of thumb:

  • Choose a product with a single active ingredient tailored to your child's symptoms.
  • Don't give a separate paracetamol fever-reducer if you use an OTC product with more than one ingredient. (Many OTCs already have paracetamol as an ingredient and the extra dose could be too much). And never give aspirin to a child or teenagers with a fever; it has been associated with Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition.
  • Feel free to buy less expensive in-house or generic brands of decongestants; they work just as well as name brands with similar ingredients. One widely used component in decongestants is pseudoephedrine, which can dry up the nose but can also cause excitement, a fast heart rate, and sometimes nightmares. Be sure to read all warnings on the label before using any decongestant.
  • Use decongestant nasal sprays only for 3 to 5 days. After that, your child's nose will become accustomed to them, and you'll see a rebound effect of even more stuffiness.
  • Don't use the medications in children under 6 without consulting your general practitioner
  • Consider using antihistamines only at night. Their main ingredient is usually diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine, or brompheniramine, which help stop the nose from running and itching, but also cause sleepiness and irritability.
  • Check the labels of all medications to get the correct dosage for your child. The label should tell you what dose is right for your child's weight.
  • Always use the proper measuring device when dosing your child
  • Never give OTC medicine to babies under 2 months old.

    Stop giving the OTC medication if it isn't helpful or if you notice side effects

    How can I boost my child's immune system?

    Vitamin C may modify cold symptoms, although the high doses required can cause diarrhoea. Long-term effects of megavitamin C are unknown, so stick to a multivitamin. Make sure your child is eating a healthy diet, resting enough, and (when he's not sick) getting plenty of exercise.

    What to do next:

    Call the doctor if your child’s symptoms worsen beyond those of the common cold – for example, trouble breathing or a fever of 100 degrees Farenheit or more for longer than three days.
  • Offer your child plenty of fluids such as soup, water and juices.
  • Use a humidifier at night
  • Find relief for any sinus congestion
  • Call a doctor if your child has a sinus headache and yellow-green nasal discharge for more than 10 days.
  • If your child ear hurts or itches, consider a possible ear infection and go to the doctor.
  • Try to prevent additional colds by having your kids wash their hands frequently, especially before mealtimes, after using the bathroom and after being outside.

      Reprinted with kind permission from

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