My Child Gets a Lot of Colds. Is There Anything I Can Do?

Get ready…cold season is on its way. Every year without fail, as soon as the air gets crisp and fall begins to tilt toward winter, here at Westchester Health Pediatrics we get inundated with kids with colds!

Your child will probably have more colds (upper respiratory infections) than any other illness throughout his/her early life. In the first two years of life alone, most children have 8-10 colds. And if your child is in childcare, or if there are older school-age children in your house, he/she may have even more, since colds spread easily among children who are in close contact with one another.

The good news: most colds go away by themselves and do not develop into anything serious.

How colds are spread

Lauren Adler

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

Colds are caused by viruses, which are very small infectious organisms (smaller than bacteria). A sneeze or a cough can easily pass a virus from one person to another. The virus can also be spread indirectly:

  1. A child or adult infected with the cold virus transfers virus particles onto his/her hand by coughing, sneezing or touching her nose.
  2. He/she then touches the hand of a healthy person.
  3. The healthy person touches their newly contaminated hand to their own nose, thus introducing the infection to an area where it can multiply and grow—the nose or throat. Symptoms of a cold soon develop.
  4. The cycle then repeats itself, with the virus being transferred from this newly infected child or adult to the next susceptible one, and on and on.

Signs and symptoms of a cold

Once the cold virus is present in your child and multiplying, he/she will develop the following familiar symptoms and signs:

  • Runny nose (first, a clear discharge; later, a thicker, often colored one)
  • Sneezing
  • Mild fever (101–102 degrees F), particularly at night
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sore throat and often, difficulty swallowing
  • Cough
  • Irritability
  • Slightly swollen glands
  • Pus on the tonsils, especially in children over 3 years. This may indicate strep infection.

If your child has a typical cold without complications, these symptoms should disappear gradually in 7-10 days.

Best treatments for a cold

  1. Rest and fluids

    Unfortunately, as we’ve all heard our whole lives, there’s no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics can combat bacterial infections but have no effect on viruses, so the best you can do is make your child comfortable. You want to make sure he/she gets extra rest and drinks lots of fluids.

  2. Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen

    If your child has a fever and is very uncomfortable, give him/her single-ingredient acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is approved for use in children 6 months of age and older; however, it should never be given to children who are dehydrated or are vomiting repeatedly. Be sure to follow the recommended dosage for your child’s age and the time interval for repeated doses.

  3. No OTC cough and cold medicines

    Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines should not be given to infants and children under 2 years old because of the risk of life-threatening side effects. Several studies now show that cold and cough products do not work in children younger than 6 years and can have potentially serious side effects. Also, coughing is actually a good thing; it clears mucus from the lower part of the respiratory tract, so ordinarily there’s no reason to suppress it.

  4. When to see your pediatrician

    An older child with a cold usually doesn’t need to see a doctor unless the condition becomes more serious. Children 3 months or younger, however, should see their pediatrician at the first sign of illness. With a young baby, symptoms can be misleading and what seems like a cold can easily be a more serious illness such as bronchiolitis, croup or pneumonia.

For a child older than 3 months, see your pediatrician if:

  • Your child’s nostrils are widening with each breath, the skin above or below the ribs sucks in with each breath (retractions), your child is breathing rapidly or is having difficulty breathing
  • The lips or nails turn blue
  • Nasal mucus persists for longer than 10-14 days
  • Your child’s cough won’t go away (lasts more than a week)
  • Pain in one or both ears
  • Temperature over 102 degrees F
  • Overly sleepy or cranky
  1. Saline nose drops and suction bulb

    If your infant is having trouble breathing or drinking because of nasal congestion, clear the nose with OTC saline (salt water) nose drops or spray. Follow this with a rubber suction bulb every few hours, before each feeding or before bed. For the nose drops, use a dropper that has been cleaned with soap and water and rinsed well with water. Place 2 drops in each nostril 15-20 minutes before feeding your baby, then immediately suction with the bulb. Never use nose drops that contain medication, since excessive amounts can be absorbed. Only use normal saline nose drops.

  2. Vaporizer

    Putting a cool-mist humidifier (vaporizer) in your child’s room also will help keep nasal secretions more liquid and make him/her more comfortable. Put the vaporizer close to your child (but safely out of reach) so that he/she can breathe in the extra moisture. Be sure to clean and dry the humidifier each day to prevent bacterial or mold from growing. We don’t recommend hot-water vaporizers because they can cause serious scalds or burns.

  3. Keep in touch with your pediatrician

    If you call your pediatrician and describe your child’s symptoms, he/she may want to see your child or may ask you to watch him/her closely and report back if the condition doesn’t improve and your child has not completely recovered within one week from the start of the cold.

How to prevent your child from getting colds in the first place

  1. If your child is under 3 months old, the best way to prevent colds is to keep him/her away from people who have them. This is especially important during the winter when many of the viruses that cause colds are circulating in larger numbers and being passed from person to person. Remember, a virus that causes only a mild illness in an older child or an adult can cause a much more serious one in an infant.
  2. If your child is in childcare with other children who are sick, washing his/her hands regularly during the day can help keep germs at bay. Also, teach your child to try not to share food, utensils, crayons, toys, etc. with other kids, but this is often hard to do. Also, if possible, teach your child to avoid rubbing his/her eyes or putting fingers in his/her mouth without washing hands first. This will cut down on the spread of viruses.
  3. When sneezing and coughing, teach your child to use a tissue or a handkerchief. This helps keep the cold virus from coming into contact with the hands where it can easily be passed on to others.
  4. Help your child get enough sleep. It’s a proven fact that when children (and adults) are overtired and run down, they’re more susceptible to colds and other infections. Encourage your child to eat nutritious meals and get the recommended hours of sleep for his/her age, particularly in the winter during cold and flu season.

Does your child get a lot of colds? Come see us, we’re here to help.

If your child gets one cold after another or has colds that routinely seem to last a long time, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics. One of our pediatricians will evaluate your child, listen to his/her history, and determine if there is maybe something more serious going on. He/she will also answer your questions and offer advice and guidance for ways to minimize the number of colds your child picks up so that he/she can be as healthy and happy as possible. That’s our #1 goal! Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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