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Kid Care: Colds

Colds are a common childhood illness. The following suggestions should help your child get back up to speed soon. If your child hasn’t had a fever for the past 24 hours and feels okay, he or she can return to regular activities at school and at play. You can help prevent future colds by following the tips at the end of this sheet.

Young boy blowing nose in tissue.

There is no cure for the common cold. An older child usually does not need to see a doctor unless the cold becomes serious. If your child is 3 months or younger, call your health care provider at the first sign of illness. A young baby's cold can become more serious very quickly. It can develop into a serious problem such as pneumonia.

Ease congestion

  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to help loosen mucus. Don’t use a hot-steam vaporizer with a young child, who could get burned. Make sure to clean the vaporizer often to help prevent mold growth.

  • Try over-the-counter saline nasal sprays. They’re safe for children. These are not the same as nasal decongestant sprays, which may make symptoms worse.

  • Use a bulb syringe to clear the nose of a child too young to blow his or her nose. Wash the bulb syringe often in hot, soapy water. Be sure to rinse out all of the soap and drain all of the water before using it again.

Soothe a sore throat

  • Offer plenty of liquids to keep the throat moist and reduce pain. Good choices include ice chips, water, or frozen fruit bars.

  • Give children age 4 or older throat drops or lozenges to keep the throat moist and soothe pain.

  • Give ibuprofen or acetaminophen as advised by your child's healthcare provider to relieve pain. Never give aspirin to a child under age 18 who has a cold or flu. It could cause a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Before you give your child medicine

Cold and cough medications should not be used for children under the age of 6, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. These medications do not work on young children and may cause harmful side effects. If your child is age 6 or older, use care when giving cold and cough medications. Always follow your doctor’s advice.

Quiet a cough

  • Serve warm fluids such as soup to help loosen mucus.

  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to ease croup. Croup causes dry, barking coughs.

  • Use cough medicine for children age 6 or older only if advised by your child’s doctor.

Preventing colds

To help children stay healthy:

  • Teach children to wash their hands often. This includes before eating and after using the bathroom, playing with animals, or coughing or sneezing. Carry an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol. This is for times when soap and water aren’t available.

  • Remind children not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth.

Tips for proper handwashing

Use warm water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean the whole hand, under the nails, between the fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash for at least 10–15 seconds. This is about as long as it takes to say the alphabet or sing “Happy Birthday.” Don’t just wash—scrub well.

  • Rinse well. Let the water run down the fingers, not up the wrists.

  • In a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

When to call the doctor

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if your child has any of these fever symptoms:

  • In an infant under 3 months old, a temperature of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher

  • In a child of any age who has a temperature that rises more than once to 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • A fever that lasts more than 24-hours in a child under 2 years old, or for 3 days in a child 2 years or older

  • A seizure caused by the fever

Also call the provider right away if your child has any of these other symptoms:

  • Your child looks very ill or is unusually fussy or drowsy

  • Severe ear pain or sore throat

  • Unexplained rash

  • Repeated vomiting and diarrhea

  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath

  • A stiff neck or severe headache

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Persistent brown, green, or bloody mucus

  • Signs of dehydration, which include severe thirst, dark yellow urine, infrequent urination, dull or sunken eyes, dry skin, and dry or cracked lips

  • Your child's symptoms seem to be getting worse

  • Your child doesn’t look or act right to you

Online Medical Reviewer: Adler, Liora C, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Last Review Date: 11/1/2016
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