Understanding Colds in Childhood

Colds are probably the most prevalent ailment in children. On average, children usually come down with about eight to ten colds per year. As a parent, it can be quite worrisome when your child frequently gets ill and equally as hard to determine when to seek medical care. This article aims to discuss the normal signs and symptoms of colds in comparison to more serious infections.

Initially, it is important to understand that the common cold is caused by a virus called the rhinovirus. Viruses are small organisms that can easily be transmitted by particles in the air and from surfaces that we touch. Thus, it is extremely easy to come in contact with these organisms. If you child has a cold without any complications, the usual course of illness is seven to ten days with a gradual disappearance of symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of a virus include:

  • Runny nose (mucous often starts clear and thickens and turns yellow or green)
  • Cough and sneezing
  • Sore throat or difficulty swallowing
  • Fever (101-102 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Decreased appetite and / or irritability

If you have an older child, it is usually safe to allow the virus to run its course and only seek medical attention if the symptoms worsen. However if you are the parent of an infant, it is usually best to seek immediate medical attention because viruses can quickly progress to more serious conditions such as bronchiolitis, pneumonia or croup. It is important to note that if your child seems to get sick around the same time each year or gets sick when exposed to dust, pollen, or another substance, he or she may have an allergy. If you child wheezes when they get sick, it may be indicative of asthma.

When to call your child’s health care provider:

  • Nasal congestion persisting longer than fourteen days
  • Cough persisting beyond one week
  • Signs of respiratory distress (nasal flaring, chest retractions, increased respiratory rate)
  • Fever of 102 or higher or persistent fever
  • Ear pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Inability to keep liquids or foods down
  • Unusual lethargy or change in behavior
  • Swollen lymph nodes (glands)
  • Chest pain or abdominal pain


Unfortunately, colds do not have a magic cure. Viruses will not respond to antibiotic therapy at all. Therefore, the best treatment for your child is supportive care. This type of care aims to make sure your child is comfortable while he or she is sick. This should include making sure your child stays hydrated and gets plenty of rest. If your child runs a fever, it is okay to give them Tylenol or Motrin (Motrin is only suitable for children who are six months of age or older) to reduce the fever. If you child has nasal secretions, you may clear their nasal cavity with a saline spray and suction their nose with a bulb syringe. You may also want to place a cool mist humidifier by their bedside at night to increase air moisture to keep them comfortable.


Keeping your child away from people that are currently sick is one way to prevent the spread of viruses. This is especially important for parents of infants because viruses can have a greater impact on their weak immune systems. The second best way to prevent catching a virus is frequent hand washing. This will assist in halting the transmission of viruses from one person to another. Remember to not allow your child to share utensils or beverages with someone who is sick.

Parental Concerns

Remember, having a sick child at home can be a stressful time. It is always important and reassuring to contact your health care provider whenever you have concerns or questions. It is imperative that you contact your child’s health care provider when your child seems to be getting worse rather than better, or you suspect he or she may have more than a cold.

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