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Common Colds in Children

Do you ever wonder why your child keeps getting the sniffles? You aren’t alone.

Adults get colds sometimes, but most young children get six to eight colds a year, making it one of the most common illnesses in children.

At Banner Children’s, we’re here to help. We share all you need to know about the all-too-common cold and how to manage it when your child is sick.

What is the common cold?

The common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract – meaning it messes with your nose, throat and sinuses.

Colds are very contagious and can quickly spread from person to person through tiny droplets that are made when a person sneezes or coughs.

What causes colds?

Getting wet or cold or going out with wet hair or bare feet doesn’t cause colds. Colds are caused by viruses — more than 200 different types of them.

Kids tend to catch a lot of these viruses because their immune systems are still growing. And just when you think your child has healed from one virus, another one might sneak in. This is why it seems like kids are “always sick.”

The good news is that most children catch fewer cold viruses as they get older.

In children, colds are usually caused by these viruses:

  • Rhinovirus: This is the number one cause of colds and is most active in early fall, spring and summer.
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): Common in infants and young children, RSV can cause cold-like symptoms or severe infections, like pneumonia.
  • Coronavirus: In addition to COVID-19, other coronaviruses can cause mild respiratory (breathing) symptoms. These are most active in the winter and early spring.
  • Adenovirus: Common in school-aged children, it can lead to colds, sore throat and more.
  • Influenza virus: Some flu strains can mimic cold symptoms in children, but with more fever and muscle aches.

In some cases, cold-like symptoms can be caused by other conditions like bronchiolitis or bronchitis, sinusitis and croup.

How do colds spread?

Children can catch colds from anyone. Germs from colds are usually spread in two ways:

  • Direct contact: Cold viruses spread quickly among children because they often touch their eyes, noses, mouths and each other. The virus can spread by touching an infected person or something (i.e., toys or a tabletop) that the person has touched and now has germs on it.
  • Through the air: Small amounts of the virus enter the air if an infected person sneezes or coughs. Your child can then breathe it in through their mouth or nose.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Common cold symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, mild fever and sometimes a headache or body aches.

Symptoms usually appear one to three days after exposure. Most colds clear up within one week, but some may last longer.

How do I know if it’s a cold and not something else?

Other conditions may seem like a cold, making it hard to know if your child has a cold or it’s something else. Here are some tell-tale signs that your child’s symptoms are caused by something other than a cold virus.

Allergies: Allergic rhinitis may cause similar symptoms along with itching, especially if it happens in certain environments, like around pets, pollen and dust.  Allergies generally don’t cause fever.

Influenza: The flu can cause more severe symptoms, high fever and body aches. It often makes people feel worse than a typical cold.  It can sometimes lead to a severe lung infection and breathing problems. The good news is there is a vaccine that can prevent a influenza infection. 

Strep throat: Strep throat is caused by bacteria and will also cause symptoms like severe throat pain, red tonsils with white spots and swollen lymph nodes.  Strep throat usually does not cause runny nose or cough. 

How is the common cold diagnosed in children?

Most children with mild cold symptoms don’t need to be evaluated by a health care provider.  If your child is evaluated, your child’s health care provider will diagnose colds by examining your child and asking a few questions. Sometimes, they may order tests to rule out other health problems, such as a swab for strep throat, COVID-19 or the flu.

How are colds treated?

There is no magic cure for colds. Antibiotics won’t work since colds are caused by viruses. It just takes time to let a cold run its course.

To help your child feel better, you can do the following:

  • Keep them well-hydrated with water, warm soup and electrolyte drinks to prevent fluid loss (dehydration).
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.
  • Use children’s strength pain relievers (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen) to ease muscle aches, fever and headache. Check with your child’s provider to make sure you’re giving the right dose.
    • Do not give ibuprofen to children under 6 months of age. Aspirin should always be avoided. Give medicines only as directed. Ask your child’s provider for help if you have questions.
  • For most children no treatment is needed for a stuffy nose since it will improve on its own.  However, some children, especially younger infants who breath through their nose, may benefit from a saline rinse or drops and suctioning. Do not use decongestant nasal sprays.
  • For infants using a suction bulb or aspirator device may also help keep the nasal passages clear and improve breathing.  Run a hot shower to create a steam-filled bathroom where your child can sit for a few minutes to help clear stuffiness.
  • Place a cool-mist humidifier in their room at night to help with breathing.

While many home remedies claim to help with children’s colds, some can come with risks. Always check with your child’s health care provider before trying herbal remedies or other alternative therapies.

Can I give my child cough medicine?

Cough and cold medications usually don’t work in children and can be harmful. Cough medicine is not recommended for children under 6  unless a provider advises it. For children older than 12 months, a teaspoon or two of honey taken before bed can ease your child’s cough.

Coughs usually last a few weeks, but as long as your child is feeling better they shouldn’t worry you. Call your provider if your child’s cough lasts more than two weeks, keeps them up at night or gets worse with exercise, or if your child has trouble breathing or has severe chest pain.

When should I call my child’s health care provider?

If your baby is younger than 3 months, call their health care provider at the first signs of any illness.

For all ages, always call your provider if you think your child might have more than a cold, they get worse instead of better or if your child:

  • Is short of breath.
  • Has an earache.
  • Can’t keep food or liquids down.
  • Has a fever that lasts more than three days.
  • Has a cough that lasts more than two weeks.

Are there ways to prevent the spread of colds?

To help children stay healthy:

  • Teach them to wash their hands often and how to sneeze into their elbow or cover their nose and mouth when they sneeze or cough.
  • Remind them not to touch their eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid sharing cups, utensils and towels with others.
  • Clean toys and play areas regularly, especially if other children play together.
  • Keep your child away from people who are sick.
  • Make sure your child receives their recommended shots. While vaccinations won’t prevent most colds, they may help prevent some complications.
  • Limit their exposure to tobacco smoke.

Our expert specialists

Banner Children’s caring staff is here to help treat, diagnose and guide you through every part of your child’s life.

Most colds can be treated at home. If you want to know more, call or schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric specialists.